Not everyone gets advice from a dying cat. Ours has decided to bestow a few nuggets of wisdom during her long exit. They have to do with euthanasia, as you might expect, but even more with listening, and conventional wisdom, and why it’s all more complicated than we ever imagined.
I’ve already written about Madeleine, a 17-year-old cat who has been my devoted companion and is now, due to cancer, in her last days. It’s the point when most pet people start to ponder the gloomy question: when do we put her down?
In situations like this, we tend to seek out wisdom from external sources, and I was no exception. I listened to the advice of friends. I heard veterinarians observe that in most cases, people wait too long to put their pets down. I read several articles discussing cats and pain. Most of this input was valuable.
It also came through a filter: a set of assumptions so deep they’re often undetectable.
As author Linda Andre observes in Disability Studies Quarterly, the bent toward euthanizing a terminally ill pet is strong. “This is the ultimate loving act for our beloved companion animals,” says the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (while also noting that “the decision when to euthanize is as individual and personal as you and your pet are”). Others might put a blunter edge on it: it’s cruel to let them suffer.
For two weeks, I looked at Madeleine’s every move through this filter. She turned up her nose at the food: does she not like it, or is that a sign? Is that plaintive meow the last straw? Is her limp so bad we should just put her down now? Is today the day?
Eventually two things became clear.
First, the filter didn’t describe Madeleine’s quality of life. At the same time I was absorbing all the external input, I also listened to Madeleine: observing her symptoms, her interest in the world around her, that light in her eyes that said life is still worth the effort. And I found that yes, she limped badly, and she may have been in some pain—but she also made it up onto a high bed to catch the sun, and purred mightily when I laid her on my lap, and cleared the room in a nanosecond when she saw me get the cat carrier for a vet appointment. In short, her life was a mixed bag that defied the usual descriptions.
Second, the filter tied me in emotional knots. And my nascent Zen practice kicked in. Why filter everything through something you’re going to do in the future (i.e., euthanize) rather than just observe what is, right here, right now? Why not just greet Madeleine in the morning and observe her behavior as is without asking the question?
Once I started doing this, my mindset changed. I could assess her condition more clearly. My wife and I took delight in Madeleine’s small achievements. They made me realize how utterly extraordinary our most ordinary activities truly are—how, at every moment, we’re living a miracle just by walking around on a world that, with its conditions favorable to life, is the longest of long shots.
Don’t get me wrong here. This is not an anti-euthanasia piece. Putting a beloved pet down has its place, absolutely. No, as I said earlier, this story is about listening, and conventional wisdom, and how complicated it all is.
For instance: I’ve learned that it’s so easy, when faced with a life situation, to assume the conventional wisdom is correct—even “the only way to think.” Madeleine is teaching me to question it where necessary. Even better, she’s teaching me to question it by listening primarily, with wide-open heart, to the person involved. It’s a priceless lesson for spiritual directors like me, and for anyone who wants to love by listening.
The other lesson is that listening is hard work. It demands a lot of us. We can easily do it wrong, even if we’ve practiced for a lifetime. But if we can manage it, the wisdom it yields is priceless.
Ultimately, maybe Madeleine is nudging me to revisit one of the Buddha’s cornerstone lessons. Stay awake. Pay attention. Notice what is. Only then can we, in the words of the Noble Eightfold Path, achieve “right action”—and make the difference we alone can make, to our loved ones and to the world.
A postscript: I finished this piece last Thursday, and the Thursday version is what you see here. On Friday, Madeleine’s quality of life took another big step downward. After consulting with our wonderful vet, we had her euthanized. Sleep well, my friend.
If you’re a regular reader here, you may have noticed that some things have changed.
The most noticeable is the banner. It used to say The Dialogue Venture. It doesn’t anymore. What does that mean?
You might think it means that I’ve given up on dialogue. In the Trump/Brexit/Le Pen era, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw: more than a few people have quit the quest to talk and listen across divides.
But I’m not among them. I believe in that work as much as I ever have. And frankly, I can’t help myself: people who disagree with my opinions and values just fascinate me. I’m odd that way.
To explain the change, it helps me to go back to the way I’ve always described my dialogue work: I help people change from the inside out to talk with people who drive them nuts.
Notice that first part: change from the inside out. This is where my focus on spirituality and God and inner transformation comes in. I am convinced of the power of faith and spirit to reorient our deepest selves toward the values and attitudes traditionally associated with God: love, peace, justice, compassion, setting oneself aside for the good of others, a deep desire to be positive change in the world.
But inner transformation has an impact on many other aspects of life too. Over the past few years, for instance, I’ve noticed it has something to say about the frenzied pace of our postmodern world. It has something to say about our constant state of distraction. It has boatloads to say about letting go of self-interest and living for something larger. Not to mention what it might say about current events: the Trump era, immigration, etc.
More and more, I’ve felt a need to expand my writing on inner transformation to encompass these issues, while not forsaking topics in dialogue. My website needs to reflect that expansion. And apparently, according to the gurus of author marketing, it’s good policy to establish your name as a “brand” wherever possible. Hence the new banner across the top, with my name in bigger type than I’m used to. (Flip through the website and you’ll see changes in other places too, like the homepage and the About page.)
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. And one more thing: thank you. All these words mean nothing unless someone reads them—even better, if someone finds a use for them. You’re one of those someones just by being here. I so appreciate your presence and support.
My beloved cat is in decline.
She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”
We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.
Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.
As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.
There’s very little control here.
And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.
Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?
What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.
But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”
And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.
Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.
Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.
Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.
Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.
Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.
This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017.
Three weeks gone and I’m already in trouble.
Last month I attended a series of webinars on social media for spiritual writers. Sponsored by Writing for Your Life, the series was a pleasant surprise: it provided enough tips and insights for me to put together a workable marketing strategy for my own writing. One of the tips:
When building your marketing platform, start with your blog and one social media outlet. Blog at least weekly; post to social media at least daily.
Years ago, I could never quite manage this kind of frequency. So I set it aside to pursue other things. When the webinar brought it up again, I thought, maybe now I can do this.
And maybe I can’t. Perhaps you noticed that I missed last week. Am I rubbish at this? Or is something else going on?
Specifically, I’m wondering whether the weekly/daily regimen—doable for writers in general, and even for spiritual writers—is much harder for contemplative writers.
Here’s why. So much of my writing comes out of my inner self. In that inner self, I pray, meditate, connect with God. Things rise to the surface: new insights, fresh angles on old insights, different ways of seeing things that I (or we, or the world) have been stuck seeing in one way. These are the nuggets that animate and inspire my writing.
The linchpin of all this is the deep connection with God. As you may have noticed, God is completely rubbish at sticking to human schedules.
This kind of quandary is so typical of the contemplative life. God seems to slow us down. God calls us to listen much and speak little.
So a week may go by, and nothing bubbles to the surface. I could throw something together and splash it up there. But it won’t be my best work, and it won’t reflect what I can give as my own one-person’s contribution to the world. Which is the point of this blog in the first place.
That doesn’t mean I’m sitting around eating bonbons and waiting for the muse to strike. Far from it. I’m still writing every day—working on my next book, developing articles, posting questions to stimulate dialogue—not to mention occasional spiritual direction and speaking. But I may have absolutely nothing for this blog on this week.
It’s an uneasy balance, and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to strike it. Yes, there are workarounds and happy compromises. But this kind of quandary is so typical of the contemplative life. God seems to slow us down. God calls us to listen much and speak little, from within our deepest selves. Contemplation requires things like stillness and solitude and silence in generous helpings.
None of this will win me a plaque in the Marketing Hall of Fame. But that’s OK. It brings me back to a lesson that God has been trying to teach me, with limited success, for the past few years: our calling is not to results, but to faithfulness.
It takes a long time to turn a big ship.
This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.
It also sheds light on world affairs, as today’s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.
The lectionary—the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteries—brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israel’s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.
Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.
The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old. Very old. More than two millennia old.
Maybe that’s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world can’t “just settle their differences”—why they just can’t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. It’s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.
Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, I’ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and they’ll provide some sort of “presenting issue.” At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s spiritual life.
Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. It’s a big ship.
What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to “make haste slowly.” That’s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.
But there’s a hitch. Whenever things move slowly—particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them move—it’s easy to wonder whether they’re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that I’ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?
Have you grappled with this too: times when life’s difficulties don’t resolve as fast as you’d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?
P.S. Just in case you’re in the market for arcane knowledge, here’s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.
Note: this piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 31. It’s written primarily for my progressive friends, and the intent is not to bash Mr. Trump (though I do criticize him–in a measured way, I hope–where I think it’s accurate and essential to the argument). Rather, it’s become clear that many, many people are struggling to cope with their inner turmoil in the wake of the U.S. presidential election; after two months of my own struggling, I’ve found something like a way forward, so I’m sharing it in the hope that it’ll help.
Ever since November 8, like so many other people, I’ve been wrestling with Trump hangover.
Perhaps you know the symptoms. Vague but persistent anxiety. Occasional nausea. An overwhelming sluggishness. The nagging sense that you should be “over this by now.”
Being a spiritual writer, I took all of these symptoms, as well as their underlying cause, into prayer and contemplation, weighing a lot of input from various sources. Finally, the beginnings of a treatment regimen are starting to take shape, and I thought I’d share in case it helps.
First, the obvious but easily forgotten fact: Trump hangover is widespread, and you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. The evidence indicates that the transition to President Trump is a seismic shift in the way the president treats the presidency—a shift to less stable ground. If you’re anxious, it’s with good reason.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Trump is a master at keeping his drama in the headlines—daily and sometimes continually. Between our always-on news culture and our relentless social media stream, we can’t even begin to recover from the last headline when the next one comes.
If you’ve struggled to keep your head above water, it’s because you’re immersed in a tidal wave.
In my own inner work around Trump hangover, I’ve had to make some rigorous distinctions that, before, I could slide by without making. News vs. commentary. Substantial news vs. not really news. Policy developments vs. the white noise of our public square. All in the service of regaining my center, preserving my integrity, re-establishing my boundaries, so I can think and act from a place of deep stability.
What does this look like in practice? For me, it goes something like this:
- Diagnosing the root cause. It’s important to see that, beyond the normal policy differences and Cabinet appointments that serve as fodder for disagreement, two peculiar traits underpin the Trump administration so far: an apparent absence of sustained thought, and a disregard for shared meaning. Words and phrases are used more for effect in the moment—and just as quickly forgotten—than to make policy arguments over time. We are asked to believe official pronouncements over what we apprehend with our eyes and ears. Compelling factual evidence is dismissed with simple denials. In a world where the way we learn things means nothing, we lose our footing. Which leads to the boundary-setting steps:
- News intake strategy 1: distinguishing fact from commentary from blather. For a while now, I have found it useful to focus my attention only on what the president does, not on what he says, or what others say about him. I’m also ignoring most commentary, as it simply inflames my anger without contributing anything of substance. (Two exceptions for me: David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.) For right now, just the facts, ma’am.
- News intake strategy 2: look-screen-decide. Whenever I see a Trump-related news item, I look at the headline, then screen it for whether it’s (a) actual fact vs. commentary vs. blather, and (b) actual news about something of substance, vs., well, the opposite. If the topic is substantive, I read the article; if not, I ignore it with the mantra “not news, don’t care.” This keeps me away from such tempests-in-teapots as the controversy over crowd size at the inauguration. (A positive side effect: this look-screen-decide technique also helps me blithely ignore 90% of social media political posts.)
- Picking your spots. For years I have cared deeply about dialogue across divides, and I want to continue that work. Anyone with family and friends on the “other side” has an interest in doing the same. For me, nothing about that sort of dialogue has to change, except one thing: I’m no longer interested in talking about Mr. Trump specifically. You want to talk gun rights, immigration policy, deregulation of healthcare, I’m up for it. Defend Mr. Trump’s behavior to me, and my mental health requires that I draw the line.
What does this give me? A sense of power, of agency, of proper boundaries set. It feels as though I’ve regained ownership of my own feelings and actions. I get to be an engaged citizen, but a healthy engaged citizen.
If early days are any indication, the news is going to be a tough emotional slog for the next four years. But maybe this will allow me to get through with my deepest self intact. May it do the same for you.
There’s been a lot of talk in the dialogue field since the U.S. presidential election. Practitioners are talking about the meaning of Donald Trump’s victory for dialogue efforts, our collective failure to listen to a wide swath of the American electorate, etc. Many have voiced the belief that we need dialogue more than ever.
And yet, ever since hearing this talk, something has felt off to me. I’m just starting to put my finger on it, and I’m surprised by how dire it feels. In a nutshell, if I’m seeing this right, the very underpinnings of dialogue are under assault.
Consider three of these underpinnings:
Words mean things. To state the obvious: dialogue depends on words. To understand each other, we have to agree on the meanings of those words, or at least understand each other’s meanings. If we don’t, how can I can begin to know what you’re saying?
Yet this very notion is going away. All too often Mr. Trump appears to use the first word that comes into his mind, not caring what it might mean or connote. He makes great use of “throwaway lines,” easy to deny or reinterpret later. Or he dismisses what he’s said as “locker-room talk.” It’s as if, in this new era, words really don’t mean anything, and we should dismiss the value of any given word or phrase. What kind of dialogue could possibly arise from that?
Believe your own eyes. There’s a reason police officers are now being equipped with body cameras, or private investigators take photos of people in compromising positions. We believe what our eyes (and ears, nose, etc.) tell us. By and large, we should: they’re pretty reliable. So we consider video and photographs compelling evidence.
Yet so often, when confronted with video of himself saying something, Mr. Trump says, “I never said that.” How can there be any room for the give-and-take of dialogue once you get to “This evidence says you said x”/”I never said x”?
The truth will set you free. While objective truth is a slippery concept—and often not the primary aim of dialogue, which may tilt more toward mutual understanding, conflict resolution, etc.—a certain dedication to the pursuit of truth can promote dialogue in compelling ways. If we aim for truth, we move beyond ourselves in pursuit of something larger. We hold our convictions more lightly to inquire what this truth might be. As a result, we are more open to hearing others’ perspectives on truth: the kind that come forth in dialogue.
It’s one thing to say we cannot ever arrive at most truths. It’s another to stop caring about truth entirely. Mr. Trump’s behavior implies that he is not concerned with the accuracy of any statement he makes. I hear this same sort of thing from some of his supporters. If we can say anything without caring if it’s true, what is our dialogue but babble?
Now weirdly, each of these corrosive trends has a healthy flipside. It’s good to take the words of another “seriously but not literally”: we do well to consider the context in which they’re said, the background of the person who says or writes them, the surrounding culture that shapes the meanings of words, etc. Similarly, it’s good to step back and consider that the “compelling video” might have a context of its own. (Plus, there’s Photoshop.) And we know the value of skepticism about truth claims.
But here’s the thing: in each of these healthy flipsides, there is one thing present that is absent from the current Trump-inspired manifestation: thought. Without thought, dialogue truly becomes babble.
I have no idea what to do with this. Perhaps we who care about dialogue will have to fight in some way for these underpinnings, to insist they be observed. Maybe we defend them at every point where we find them assailed. Maybe we simply do our own dialogue thing and thereby serve as a witness to its power in a world of degraded communication.
What do you think?
As you may have gleaned from the last post, the state of the U.S. is troubling me on a deep level. It has, among other things, left me with no stomach for dialogue—a very strange position for the host of a website called The Dialogue Venture.
This made more sense to me in the immediate wake of the presidential election. A seismic shift like the election of Donald Trump takes some processing. But it’s now December and I still don’t want to talk.
I may, however, be starting to figure out why. And the reasons may bump into some of America’s deepest divides like a dentist’s drill on a raw nerve.
(Warning: some of what follows may induce eyerolling and the no shit, Sherlock response. I will completely understand. More than that, you may know from experience that I’ve got some important stuff in here totally wrong. If that’s true, please tell me.)
Here’s the thing: Reaching out to others in dialogue is a vulnerable act. Just saying “I want to dialogue with you” requires that we let our guard down. This is difficult enough when we do it from a position of strength—when the balance of power is at least equal (or tips to our side), when we feel safe and stable, when we perceive no threats on the horizon.
It’s nearly impossible when those strengths are missing.
As I wrote in my last post, no one who feels disrespected—or invalidated, or invisible, or in any way marginalized—wants to talk with their disrespecters. More broadly, no one wants to talk when they sense a clear and present danger in their environment, when opening up to dialogue carries a high risk of yet another, deeper wound. Only the saintly or heroic can even think of reaching out when vulnerable.
Before November 8—as a white, suburban, straight, genderfluid person—I perceived myself as in a position of relative strength or stability. Yes, people could mock my gender identity, but they were usually strangers and their voices were few. The election of Donald Trump, with his chronic denigration of others, has changed that. Suddenly being different—or even welcoming difference—leaves one open to disrespect and, sometimes, much worse.
It feels like a dark place. And yet there is one fascinating glimmer of light. I wonder if my sense of vulnerability is a teeny-tiny glimpse into the world of so many who have been disrespected every day, all day long, for decades, even centuries.
This feels like what I’ve read about the experience of African Americans, and why many of them view white people’s efforts to reach across divides with distrust and suspicion. This feels like what I’ve read as the reasons for separatist movements. This feels like what I know personally, from my experience as a genderfluid person, as frustration with having to explain, over and over again, who I am and why I am, when people who fit the cultural mold never have to explain. (To make things even more complicated, I know that sometimes it’s really important that I do explain myself, as I wrote here.)
Now, looping back to what I wrote last week:
No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected.
This apparently includes supporters of Mr. Trump. We have all heard the narrative: for a sizable chunk of the U.S. population—many of them middle or working class, living in rural areas, scraping to get by—the impact of global trends has been brutal. Their wages have stagnated, at best, for decades. No one in power, according to this view, is listening to them.
So if they get approached by an affluent professor from a big city, saying, “I want to dialogue with you,” why would they want to?
Now in fact some researchers—like Katherine Cramer from the University of Wisconsin—have made this work. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, for many of us right now, curling into our own worldviews and living there awhile sounds pretty good.
I don’t know what to do with all this. One imperative seems clear: if people don’t want to dialogue right now, we need to respect the living hell out of that. They have some very good reasons. Maybe the only thing we can do now is one-half the hard work of dialogue: shut up and listen.
Right after the U.S. presidential election, the dialogue field seemed to launch itself into activity. A November 14 post on the blog of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation proclaimed that “dialogue & deliberation is more critical than ever” and invited professionals to share their post-election activities. Based on the 34 responses in the Comments field—a huge number for most blogs these days—there’s a lot going on.
I’m sure some of this activity, even most of it, will prove fruitful in some way. Yet I cannot shake the gut feeling that we, as a field, are missing a very, very big point.
Specifically, I wonder if our prospects for authentic dialogue—at least on the national, global, policy, big-issue levels—have turned very dark indeed. I wonder whether the obstacles to further dialogue have become insurmountable, at least in the short term.
Here’s why I’m wondering this:
- It’s unclear to me that Trump supporters want to dialogue at all. Several disparate observations lead me to this.
- Over several months, on my own social media feed, I put out several calls for Trump supporters to share the thinking behind their support. I received thoughtful, in-depth answers from precisely two people. Everyone else, even when approached directly, gave me evasions at best.
- Separate from this effort, I’ve noticed that social media comments and posts from Trump supporters are nearly free of original content. (Before you think I’m jumping to the conclusion that Trump supporters are stupid, see point 2 below.)
- In mainstream media, buckets of ink have been spilled reporting (and in some cases publishing research) on why Mr. Trump has attracted so much enthusiasm. There are many reasons why “the media” may have missed the whys and wherefores of this support. But could one of them be that many Trump supporters simply do not want to talk about it?
- In NCDD (where I just finished two terms as a board member), we have long bemoaned the dearth of conservative voices among our membership. Some have pondered whether dialogue is a “liberal thing.” At the recent biannual conference, I don’t recall talking with anyone who supported Mr. Trump.
- No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected. I’ve noticed this within myself since November 8: amid all the talk of “reaching out to Trump supporters” to try understanding them, I want someone to reach out to me. Do Trump supporters feel the same way? Have they felt the same way for a long time? A corollary of this is “explanation fatigue”: people in marginalized groups often find themselves having to explain who they are and why they are, so putting the onus on them to explain themselves again in dialogue just adds to their sense of otherness and disrespect.
- The fissures are so much deeper, and more ancient, than we thought. I’ve been reading an in-depth history of the U.S. between 1788 and 1800, when factions and partisanship first became part of the political landscape. Some aspects of that history are so very familiar: a divide between city and country (link to brilliant and profane article on this topic here), between centralized government and small government advocates, between slave owners and abolitionists. I have no doubt that you could trace these divides much further back as well. Yes, the rise of Mr. Trump may be about immigration or economic opportunity in 2016—and these issues are important—but they do not begin to explain the divides of centuries. I don’t see our current attempts at dialogue even beginning to address this.
- In a post-truth society, we have nothing to dialogue with. The very nature of dialogue implies a search for truth of some kind: the truth of the other person’s experience, at least, if not some kind of transpersonal truth (e.g., gravity exists, slavery is universally wrong). We dialogue because there are truths we don’t know, either about the other or about the world. Mr. Trump’s campaign seems to have ushered in an era where one can say anything, claim anything, without regard for the accuracy or truth value of that statement. What then forms the content of our conversation? It can be anything, it can go anywhere, without regard for reality. This is not dialogue. It is not even conversation.
I dearly hope someone will read this and explain precisely why I’m wrong. I would love to think that dialogue efforts can proceed as they did before November 8—the same tools, the same techniques, the same spirit and attitude—just accelerated. But I don’t see it. What do you see?
Last week in this space, we discussed “a time for dialogue and a time to shut up.” In line with my contemplative nature, I’ve opted for the latter recently, sitting in silent prayer with the wreckage of the U.S. presidential election and seeing what bubbles to the surface.
What has bubbled to the surface is impatience.
I’ve had no use for rehashing the results or joining in the collective fury of many people on the left. I have turned my attention away from analysis, predictions, commentary, and punditry of all types. Weirdest of all, my colleagues are mobilizing for dialogue efforts, and I just can’t join them.
What I do want—what in fact I’m craving—are facts.
I have little interest in what Mr. Trump says at this point, but I want to know what he does. Right now, it’s all about who he appoints to his administration: their qualifications, their temperament. On January 21, it’ll be about the policies he pushes, the executive orders he signs, the treaties he abrogates (or doesn’t). Don’t tell me what it means; don’t tell me what you think about it; just give me the facts.
The other day, I realized that my hunger for “just the facts” is part of something bigger. It’s a craving for truth—or at the very least, an unblinking pursuit of truth.
I’m craving truth because I’ve barely heard any for more than a year now. Mr. Trump has built a history of chronic, continual lying. Secretary Clinton is hardly simon-pure herself. Social media is littered with memes and news stories with next to no truth value. Each side is armed with its own “facts,” to which it clings regardless of evidence to the contrary.
But here’s the thing: dialogue’s value is greatly diminished if we don’t care about truth.
Yes, we can still dialogue to understand one another, to glimpse another’s pain and struggles up close, to foster empathy. That’s still terribly important. But if the point is to work together on society’s problems—what professionals call deliberation—forget it. You can’t agree on what to do if you don’t agree on what’s happening.
Some people might raise objections at this point. No one can uncover absolute truth (if it even exists). My truth is different from your truth. What’s more important is common understanding. Etc. There’s merit in these points, to be sure.
But to dismiss the pursuit of truth entirely is wrongheaded. Consider: Gravity exists. Slavery is wrong. Smoking causes cancer. There was a point at which all of these points were not regarded as truth. Now they are. Over the eons, we have learned things about the cosmos, and we assert those things as true, because we have inquired into the truth of the matter.
This pursuit of truth energizes dialogue. Here’s what I wrote in my book:
The whole point of raising [the commitment to truth in a book on dialogue] is its power to bring us together. When we are passionate about truth—not truth as we see it, but truth in itself—we eagerly seek out anyone whose perspective might shed light on that truth. That draws us into an exploration of diverse ideas with other people. In other words, truth seeking as a habit of the heart draws us straight into dialogue.
So for now, for me, facts first. Pursuit of truth first. There’ll be plenty of time for the essential work of dialogue—later.