Dialogue, Crosswords, and the Big Mindshift

Somewhere along the line, someone gave me a book of New York Times crossword puzzles from the 1970s. It, in turn, has given me culture shock. Take this clue:

114    Kin of N.Y.S.E. and Amex

First, you have to realize that this Amex does not refer to American Express, but to the American Stock Exchange, which always made the nightly news in the 1970s but doesn’t even exist today. Then you have to discard the first thing that comes to mind—NASDAQbecause NASDAQ had just started in 1971 and was not a major player at the time. The answer? OTC, as in over-the-counter trading.

Examples of this abound. The answers to some clues are trendy words that no one uses anymore. The whole style of Times crosswords—the clues they use, the way they integrate themes—was different back then. There’s an implicit assumption that most puzzle solvers had learned at least some Latin.

In other words, working these puzzles requires a thoroughgoing mindshift back to the seventies. If you want to understand these puzzles, you have to enter the creator’s world.

Right there is your window on some of the hardest work in dialogue.

It’s one thing to dialogue within our frameworks; it’s quite another to sit down with someone from a different framework entirely. I can talk with my ex-Marine neighbor about the Afghan war and know that, even if we disagree on policy, we can pretty much grasp each other’s mindsets because we share so much: a common language, cultural background, socioeconomic status, etc. If I’m talking with a refugee from Vietnam, all that goes out the window. The work becomes much more difficult.

If I want to understand her, I have to enter her world.

Doing so might help us connect much more effectively with people who are very different from us. What makes this essential today is that most of the world is very different from us, and we come into contact with those people more and more. As a result, a straight, white, middle-class, Christian framework—which would have served me famously in the 1950s—will not get me far in understanding Muslims building an Islamic center near Ground Zero, or gay Americans who fear violence from anti-gay activists, or the struggles of low-income people to make ends meet.

By making the mindshift, we can connect with our wonderfully diverse neighbors. By connecting, we lay the foundation for dialogue. With that foundation in place, we have a way forward when the inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings arise. The difficult work is more than worth the effort.

Have you ever tried talking with someone from a very different background or point of view? Were you able to make the mindshift? Your stories can help all of us, so feel free to share them here.

Note: I’ll be hosting my family for a reunion in a few days, so there’ll be no post next week. Watch this space around September 3 for the next post.

3 Responses to “Dialogue, Crosswords, and the Big Mindshift”

  • Debbi says:

    This is excellent John. You have masterfully articulated a core obstacle to effective dialogue.

    I am currently reading a book about Paul of Tarsus and it is taking me through Paul’s world so I can start to unravel his mindset when he wrote his epistles to the new Christian communities of his day. Understanding his world and mindset is changing my opinion of him and presenting his words in a way that I have previously not understood them. A dialogue has started, of sorts, though the centuries.

    The million dollar question is, of course, how do we master the art of understanding mindsets other than our own? Where do we find the best practices, the most successful models or even any kind of methodology? Whose voices do we trust to accurately convey these mindsets?

    I believe Jesus’ answer to these questions was to love one another. It may be the most simple, effective approach but it remains the most elusive as well. (All due to operator error I may add, not the program itself).

    You are tackling a huge subject here and one that couldn’t be more critical in our modern, increasingly globalized world. I look forward to your next thoughts!

    • admin says:

      Great comment, Debbi. Your point about Jesus’ answer to these questions–love–is particularly trenchant, especially if we understand love as the putting aside of ourselves to hear (and ultimately to serve) the other. That, in turn, runs us smack into the question of how to love in that way; I believe it brings us right back to God and the inner transformation God can effect in us.

      I love the question “Whose voices do we trust to accurately convey these mindsets?” Might the answer be “everyone’s voices”? Or at least everyone when they are speaking from their own experience, their own background, their own heritage. To me, that voice carries so much more weight than abstract pronouncements, flip comments, or generalizations about the other from people who don’t know the other.

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