The question at the heart of every religious and secular search for meaning and purpose: How can I connect with something larger than my own ego?

Parker Palmer

Healing the Heart of Democracy

The hardening of my mother’s aorta, we’ve been told, is progressing, but I’m happy to report she doesn’t suffer from hardening of the heart.

I’m the one with that.

Mom’s heart disease isn’t surprising for an 86-year-old, but her latest check-in with the cardiologist was an unwelcome reminder that we won’t have her with us forever, no matter how dearly we might wish for that improbability.

The prognosis doesn’t bother her much. Her aorta may be narrowing, but her heart is open — to life as well as death.

Mine is the more serious condition. My heart hardens, a recurring condition that comes upon me gradually. I don’t even notice until something softens it.

That happened the other night as I watched The Way, a film about the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain (you can find it in the public library’s DVD collection). Emilio Estevez directed his father, Martin Sheen, playing a man with a hardened heart who recovers his humanity along the way.

A good film can make you feel human again by arousing a quality that sometimes goes missing: compassion. The revival of our humanity is the “catharsis” the ancient Greeks said lies at the heart of great tragedy — it induces compassion for our fellow men and women. It softens our hearts.

News of my mom’s advancing condition also contributed to my change of heart. At church last Sunday, which we typically attend together, I could feel the softening because my eyes kept filling with tears — the predictable release of pent-up emotion. A lot of people would be surprised to hear that I sometimes cry at Mass since I am often critical of the institutional Catholic Church. My criticisms are warranted, but they can be severe, even loveless, which is a sure sign of a hardened heart.

As readers of this column well know, I am also a frequent critic of the Republican Party for all the damage they have done over the past three decades to the country I love. Their hard-hearted policies have produced a level of economic inequality and suffering that fills me with moral outrage.

Unfortunately, the anger I feel about their hard-heartedness frequently hardens my own heart. One of my oldest friends, my political polar opposite, is a wealthy man whose wealth, in my opinion, has made him cold-hearted. But I can’t get through to him because I have become cold-hearted toward his cold-heartedness.

Wealth isn’t the only thing that makes us hard of heart.

Like many, I was thrilled to hear about Joe Biden taking apart Paul Ryan during last week’s vice presidential debate. And I dearly hope President Obama “came out swinging” in last night’s debate, putting Mitt Romney in his well-deserved place. If so, all of the president’s supporters will be cheering lustily this morning, venting their long-simmering frustrations. Then again, if Romney got the upper hand, his supporters will be cheering just as lustily, venting their frustrations.

There are plenty of hardened hearts on both sides of the political divide this election season. And both sides pay a price for it.

Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Parker Palmer titled, Healing the Heart of Democracy, in which he contends that we can’t resolve this country’s polarization unless we develop “habits of the heart” that help us bridge the divide. It’s a book everyone should read.

I can’t stop being a critic — it’s my nature — but there are two kinds of critics. I’ve learned (the hard way) that hard-hearted critics are seldom heard by the targets of their criticism.

The alternative, however, is not “soft-hearted” criticism. That term implies weakness. What I’m aiming for is “open-hearted” criticism.

Life is going to break our hearts, Palmer says. There’s no way around that. But if our hearts are brittle, they will be shattered into a thousand pieces, which doesn’t do us or anyone else any good. But letting our hearts “break open,” as Palmer puts it, leads to understanding, collaboration, and, yes, compassion.

I’m not worried about my mom (a lifelong Republican, by the way). Her heart broke open decades ago. I and countless others have been the beneficiaries. I’m just trying to follow her lead.

At Mass, when the congregation says the Lord’s Prayer, I hold her hand, which, like everything else about her is filled with warmth. In the future, when I feel my heart hardening, I’m going to remind myself of her warm hand. And when that hand is no longer there to grasp, I expect the memory of it will break my heart — again and again.

But I trust it will break open.

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