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Irene and Her Lesson for Dialogue

I had a moment of cynicism this past Sunday, and the lessons apply directly to dialogue.

As the rain from Irene poured onto our yard, we kept waiting for it to come into our basement. Every hour we walked downstairs and checked. Dry. Dry. Dry. Finally, at 11:30, we saw the first film of water on the basement floor. Much wet/dry vacuuming ensued, but the water level never went above a coating.

Meanwhile, on every TV channel, meteorologists shook their heads and reported that Irene was every bit as disastrous as predicted. At one point I turned to my wife and asked, “Is it possible they’re hyping this just a bit?”

As the day wore on, though, the news footage started to come in from Windham, and Schoharie, and Vermont. And I saw how horribly wrong I was.

In the past few days, this experience reminded me of a basic truth about dialogue as a way of life: the way of dialogue suspends judgment. It is so easy to seize on one factoid or limited perspective or shred of truth—especially if it comes from our own experience—and leap to a fully formed opinion about the whole situation.

I would submit that our culture supports this jumping to conclusions in several ways. The overwhelming volume of media—24/7, always on, always “breaking news”—almost demands that we process and evaluate information instantly just to keep up. Partly to accommodate the media, many pundits, elected leaders, and talk radio hosts reduce complex issues to sound bites, and it becomes easy to assume that the sound bite is the sum total of the issue.

Moreover, the cynicism that pervades much of postmodern life can color our judgment. On numerous occasions, I’ve seen our local meteorologists make a big deal of a weather event that didn’t live up to the hype. Because of that, I found it easy to assume that hype had become standard operating procedure for boosting ratings. I did not stop to consider just how difficult weather forecasting can be, how many variables are involved, or how swiftly conditions can change.

Living as people of dialogue—people oriented toward openness, toward listening, toward a passion for seeking out the reality of a situation, toward the importance of others’ perspectives—calls us to remain open to as many inputs as possible, and consider them with respect, before (and even after) coming to judgment. It’s why getting our news from “the other side” as well as “our side” is so important. It’s why the consultancy for which I work (The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc.) urges clients to include a broad cross-section of people in the discussion of an issue: hearing inputs from many perspectives leads to a more complete view of the issue, which in turn makes for more thoughtful analysis and better decisions.

What would happen if we took this open, reflective, think-before-you-judge approach on the federal debt, or on immigration, or even with our kids when they do something questionable? Could it work? What do you think?

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3 Responses to “Irene and Her Lesson for Dialogue”

  • Chloe says:

    John, thank you for addressing your experience of Irene in this way. I saw many different expressions of cynicism about Irene once she seemed to pass with little consequence to folks in my Boston neighborhood. I then saw a number of quarrels break out through both old and new media, among public figures and individual citizens alike. Those who had expected the worst and spent time and energy in preparation for Irene without ultimate need to do so almost seemed to feel disappointed, as if their efforts had gone unappreciated. Those who weren’t adequately warned (for reasons of unpredictability or otherwise) and bore the brunt of the storm, were devastated.

    In the wake of Irene and the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I am struck by the effects that disaster has on our approach to understanding reality. Similarly, I am struck by the effects that an unfulfilled threat of disaster has on our understanding of reality, and the realities of others. What was I not able to see, in the moments after Irene passed, and I had organized those two days of my life around the assumption it would have larger consequences? What was I not able to see, at age 13, when my immediate reality did not seem to have been changed after the fall of the Twin Towers? Most importantly, what enabled me to see more fully, more clearly, and build a more accurate, reliable, and fair picture of reality in the time that followed?

    In response to my last question, I echo your sentiments that “Living as people of dialogue—people oriented toward openness, toward listening, toward a passion for seeking out the reality of a situation, toward the importance of others’ perspectives—calls us to remain open to as many inputs as possible, and consider them with respect, before (and even after) coming to judgment.”

    I see the key as passion. It doesn’t work to adopt a dialogic approach to knowing the world simply because you think you should, or you’ve been told its a useful way. Being dialogic works because you want it, and you want it bad. You have got to maintain a deep desire to understand the world and its multiple, complex, conflicting realities, and to come to this understanding through the “other,” through distinct difference. You have to know what being dialogic (in the way you describe it) means and what it has the power to do. You’ve got to want to experience difference, the taking on of other perspectives, the internal wrestling with these new ways of seeing, the engagement and critical reflection upon your own perspectives, and the incredible experience of growth that can result.

    So the question for me is: how do people come to want this?

    • admin says:

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      Great comment, Chloe, and a superb question. I suspect there are several ways into “coming to want this.” One is incremental: something sparks a tiny ember of interest in the world outside us, we explore that ember, and our curiosity grows. So, for instance, an overseas trip opens our eyes to how differently people in another part of the world think, and we suddenly realize that our perspective may not be the only one.

      Another path toward “coming to want this”–which goes right to the heart of my writing here–is spiritual in nature. Most of our faith traditions aim at transforming people from the inside out, generally into people of peace, wisdom, and compassion. As we move forward on that journey, we learn who we truly are–part of which is that each of us is one person, with one set of perspectives and beliefs, in a world of billions. That wisdom, together with the compassion that draws us toward others, naturally impels us to curiosity about those others, and we begin to seek out dialogue with them. This is what I mean when writing about “the way of dialogue” and dialogue as a way of life. It’s also why I believe people of faith have a major contribution to make in the dialogue arena–when, ironically, too many of them have engaged in the opposite of dialogue.

      I’d be interested to hear your reactions to these ideas, and whether they make sense to you.

  • Chloe says:

    And furthermore, how does dialogue change in the context of disaster? Does disaster impair dialogic processes or catalyze them?

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