Habits of the Heart for Times Such as These
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
Every day throughout my teenage years, my father sits at the kitchen table in the early morning hours, a cup of coffee by his side, a yellow legal pad before him, and a pencil in his hand. He is making a list (or five, or ten): lists of to-do’s for that day and that week; lists of his dreams and of steps to accomplish them; lists of instructions to give his colleagues, or his family, or the Sunday school class he’ll teach that weekend; lists of jokes to share with those very same people, bless him.
For years, I railed against the content of my father’s lists, especially when they offered helpful but unasked-for advice for me. Little did I know how deeply this spiritual practice of my father’s—the chaos-reducing, brain-freeing, creativity-encouraging practice of list making—was seeping into my soul.
Nowadays, especially when our world—locally, nationally, personally, publicly—feels chaotic, traumatic, exhausting, and confused, I find it helpful to ground myself in this spiritual practice. I make, or I find, a list or lists that offer a pathway to clarity, peace, and a renewed sense of gladness about being alive. And lo and behold, I have found just such a list this week!
But first, a little context:
Habits of the Heart
What is a spiritual practice, after all, if not a “habit of the heart,” as writer-teacher Parker Palmer calls them? We find an activity that grounds us in our best selves and that opens our minds and hearts to new ways of seeing, thinking, being. Maybe our spiritual practice involves making lists, or praying, meditating, taking photographs, drumming, dancing, singing, beading, journaling, washing the dishes, serving meals to those in need … Actually, anything can be a spiritual practice when we bring a mindful intention to it. We practice and practice these activities until they become a habit of the heart, a steady portal into a new way of being in the world. We practice and practice, and gradually we feel ourselves beginning to change, with the side effect that our capacity to change the world around us grows, too.
In Times Such as These
As I write, the temperature of the national presidential election season has skyrocketed, with the major parties’ national conventions bringing heated rhetoric and sometimes-alarming surprises. We Unitarian Universalists feel, too, the pain of this summer’s brutal losses—the deaths of citizens and police officers; violence near and far; needs beyond our capacities to fix in any simple or straightforward way.
Yet this week, just when I need it most, I come across a wonderful list. Parker Palmer lists five “Habits of the Heart” to help “heal the heart of democracy.” And it strikes me that Palmer’s list applies not just to our political system—though God knows we need these habits there. It can also remind us, dear ones, of the habits of the heart that we need as we strive to create the Beloved Community right here and now.
The List—Five Habits of the Heart for Us to Practice:
1. An understanding that we are all in this together.
2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
4. A sense of personal voice and agency.
5. A capacity to create community.
What We Do Now
This list will not surprise us Unitarian Universalists. It echoes our core principles and the very mission of our congregation.
But in times such as these, the ground of our faith must prove its strength. We must “double down” on the spiritual practices that lead us to our best selves and to deeper connections, collaborations, solidarity, and community. What we do now matters!
So: let’s plunge in. Let’s double down on the spiritual practices that give us the strength, hope, and courage to change and to be agents of change. We need such habits of the heart for these crucial times. I can’t wait to participate in what we will create!
With deep love for you and gratitude for this journey we share,