Sustaining the Human Spirit: Another Way of “Going Green”

by Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal

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I’ve admired and applauded the sustainability movement from afar but—true confessions—I’ve not been a close student of it or an active participant in the organizations that represent it.

Because of my ignorance, I assumed that the movement was exclusively focused on things like clean air; an adequate and potable water supply; soil conservation; the fuels we use to transport ourselves and our “stuff”; the flora and fauna that inhabit the earth; the earth itself under the impact of rapid and devastating climate change and species extinction; and, of course, our ability to survive as a species on this resilient yet fragile orb.

To say the obvious, everything on that list is more than important—it is urgent. But it never occurred to me that the sustainability movement might also have to do with sustaining the human heart and spirit or that the Center for Courage & Renewal might be a sustainability organization. Then I got a wake-up call from some people at the heart of the movement. Partly because of my own work, but largely because of the Center’s work, I was named one of five 2011 Wisconsin Bioneers by Sustain Dane, a sustainability organization in my hometown of Madison, which is located in Dane County. 

My initial reaction was not, “What an honor!” It was “Say what?” How in the world was I qualified to be named a Bioneer? Like many people in Madison, my wife and I recycle, refuse to use toxic chemicals on our lawn, and purchase organic and locally-grown food as often as possible. But we do not drive a Prius, do not rely on solar or wind power, have not installed a composting toilet, and do not keep the thermostat at sixty-two degrees during Madison’s deep-freeze winters.

As I learned more about the sustainability movement through my new friends at Sustain Dane, I realized that locally and nationally the movement has been reaching out to include “sustaining the human spirit” in its mission. And that, of course, is what the Center’s mission is all about. In fact, sustaining the human spirit is the mission of many people who deserve the title “Bioneer” as much and more than I do because of the vital work they do day in and day out. I mean people like parents and grandparents, neighbors, teachers, workplace colleagues, and leaders in every realm—from non-profit to business to government—who work daily to evoke, nurture and safeguard the gifts and capacities of the people with whom they connect at home or at work.

Take, for example, the fact that fifty percent of the young people who go into K-12 teaching leave the field forever within the first five years. Some leave because they discover that teaching is not their gift and feel called to some other line of work. But many who would make good teachers bail out early because the settings in which they teach make “the heart of the teacher” an unsustainable resource. And that, of course, is a crying shame because the teacher is the single most important school-based resource in helping students learn.

It seems obvious why we need to work on the sustainability of the human spirit, but maybe it isn’t. If it were, we would be doing more about it in organized, intelligent, and strategic ways. So let me name three reasons why “Going Green” by sustaining the human spirit is vital: (1) Every human being is worthy of being held with respect and given a chance to develop his or her potential to the fullest. (2) We pay a terrible price—individual and collectively, culturally and politically, spiritually and economically—for the various forms of abuse that erode the sustainability of the human spirit at home, in the workplace, and in our public life. (3) Only by sustaining the spirits of people who live and work under abusive conditions can we strengthen them to challenge and change those conditions.

Due to the massive and widely-publicized rallies at the Wisconsin State Capitol last February and March, many people know that public school educators in this state feel used and abused by politicians, as well as some segments of the public, who simultaneously blame them for problems that teachers alone cannot fix and deprive them of the resources necessary to make progress on those problems. This Catch-22 can be found in virtually every state in the nation.

I will not soon forget an informal seminar I did with twenty exemplary Madison area K-12 teachers not long after last winter’s rallies. I started things off with some remarks, then asked the group what they wanted to talk about. One man—who did not strike me as a person prone to complaining or self-pity—asked, very simply, “Why do they hate us so much?”

Suppose you wanted to commandeer the public schools (or any institution, including the institutions of government) in order to conform them to your own political agenda. Part of your strategy would surely be to disempower the teachers who might resist you in service of a different vision of the goals of public education. How would you do that?

• First you’d exhaust those teachers by reducing their funding and increasing their work load.

• Then you’d institute dubious “assessments” and give people who know little about teaching the power to “evaluate” (and punish or reward) the people who know most about teaching, the teachers themselves.

• As a special feature of your strategy of disempowerment, you’d structure those assessments in ways that pit teachers against one another in win-lose competitions.

• All of this would isolate teachers from one another and force them to work in silos, which is inherently disempowering.

• Then you’d surround education with a climate of manipulated public disdain and distrust that would demoralize even the best teachers so profoundly that they’d ask, “Why do they hate us so much?”

That’s why we need a more broadly defined and deeply rooted “sustainability movement”—to support the infinitely renewable resource called the human spirit. The goal is not only to support and encourage individuals who are doing some of the most important heavy lifting in our society. The larger goal is to empower them, individually and collectively, to resist the forces of disempowerment arrayed against them—and help them become internal change agents who can transform our increasingly dysfunctional institutions, including our institutions of government.

The good news is that many individuals and organizations are doing the work necessary to empower change agentry by finding ways to honor, protect, sustain and deploy the power of the human spirit. The Center for Courage & Renewal is an integral part of that much larger movement, contributing daily in on-the-ground ways to reclaiming integrity and courage in professional and public life.

So even though “Say what?” was my initial reaction, I am honored to accept Sustain Dane’s Bioneer Award on behalf of the Center and the many, many people—staff, facilitators, participants, and donors—who make its work possible.

Parker Palmer’s latest book is Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

An interview with Parker Palmer by Marianne Cacciatore, Executive Director of Bread for The Journey:

This entry was posted in Community Building & Peace, Education & Learning, Health, Healing, & Psychology, Main Articles by our Grant Partners, Spirituality, Religion, & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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