published Sunday, November 11th, 2012

David Cook: Where do we go from here?

The human heart is the first home to democracy. — Terry Tempest Williams

There is nothing that says our American democracy has to work. Or endure. Or last. No declaration from on high. No forever promise.

These days, I wonder if we are seeing the sunset of things, a sort of slow- moving 9/11, where our own democratic institutions are in freefall and our political faith flatlined.

I've been thinking lately of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis' satire "The Screwtape Letters," in which a veteran, tenured demon (I imagine him played by Anthony Hopkins; maybe even Stephen Colbert?) advises a younger tempter (Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter?) on best practices in damning some poor, clueless Brit to hell.

Lewis' point is to expose the various influences on our daily lives and how they lead us toward the light, or dark, sides of life. If there ever was a Screwtape 2.0, half of it should deal with one area in particular.

Politics.

If your motive was to ruin this society, to turn neighbors into enemies, then there is no better frontrunner than modern politics and its sidekicks: mass pop media, yelling disguised as discourse and blatant disgust for any group other than yours. You want a house divided? A political hangover? Welcome to America.

The day after last week's election, I heard from a reader who used the following words: Funeral. Death. Mourning. I heard of one man, a veteran, leaving for far shores. A few weeks before, I heard from another woman who had done the same.

Of course, this isn't Disneyland. There will always be tension. But someone has spit into the broth and we're left trying to swallow a bitter politics where wisdom, intelligence, kindness, openness have become illegal aliens of sorts.

You know who I blame for this mess?

Me.

Know who else?

You.

But not them. I'm done blaming them. Won't do any good. Because if we're going to fix this, it won't happen from Washington or Hollywood.

Why? Because they don't hurt like we do.

"When things we care about fall apart, heartbreak happens," writes Parker Palmer in his recent book, "Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit."

Palmer, who may be our nation's wise elder, says that democracy foremost is a matter of the heart, the place within us where the large things roam: courage, bravery, relationships, compassion, bridge-building.

The version pimped to us from Washington and pop media is so flat, so horizontal. And our hearts shrivel, kinda like the Grinch. Parker calls it "the politics of the broken-hearted."

There are a thousand ways to heal our democratic heart, many of them on a very long list of anything that you can do that fills you with life (join a bowling league, build a garden, read the collected works of Rumi or Yeats, throw your television off a cliff, email your politician every day, eat good food).

But essentially, the larger answer is this: Resist. And build.

Resist anything that tears down the dignity of life.

And build up anything that does the opposite.

"I wish we could have action circles all over the city," said Anne Curtis.

Curtis, who worked for 11 years as director of Bridge Refugee Services, recently co-led an action circle, a regular gathering of people with the purpose of building community.

"The more we can talk with one another, the more we can get to know one another, the stronger our democracy is," said Curtis.

She wants to co-lead another action circle, beginning this January (interested, anyone?).

This may not be your cup of tea (party), which is fine. But like historian Howard Zinn once said: You can't be neutral on a moving train.

And if we're not steering the democracy of this nation, who will?

"If we can't say we're all in this together, if we can't welcome other-ness, if we can't learn how to hold tension until we can come up with a compromise, if we can't help each other develop our own voices, and if we can't help build community," said Curtis, "then how we can we have democracy?"

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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