Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Current Events’ Category

If You Ever Wished You Could Quit the Human Race…

…join the crowd.

I’d be happy to take a long hiatus from the current version of homo sapiens, because we’re a hot mess. The rage and hatred in the public square are becoming unbearable. As if that weren’t bad enough, I see this same spirit infecting other parts of our life together. Even in my beloved hobby, whose members are family to me, the charges and countercharges, white-hot social media fury, choosing up sides and fighting are on full display.

Now, with the news of the past couple of weeks—pipe bombs in the mail, lives lost at a Pittsburgh synagogue—all of this has shaded into a new level of violence. As it had to. Spew enough words, create enough rage, and weapons often follow.

Bottom line, we’ve done a lot of damage in the past two years. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. The damage will take time and space and work to heal. And until we heal, we’ll be very vulnerable to further pain. No wonder people are hiding out, keeping to themselves, refusing to converse, bowling alone.

With all my heart I want to join them. Two things give me pause, and they both came up in silent prayer recently–where so many things come up, courtesy (I believe) of the Spirit.

Thing 1: notice the pronouns two paragraphs above. We’ve done a lot of damage. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. Like it or not, I’m one of them—one of us—which means I have to own my own inner dross. It’s true that I make a point of not spewing rage and drama. But the seeds of it live in my heart too, just like they live in most everyone’s heart.

In short, I’m stuck with us. We’re stuck with us.

Thing 2 comes from my orientation as a Christian. Just by our species’ status as still alive and walking around, it’s evident to me that God has not given up on the human race. Quite the opposite when you consider Christianity’s central story: that God, in the person of Jesus, became every bit as human as you and me. That he drank the human experience to its dregs, right down to a humiliating public execution. God is quoted as saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and the Christ story proves it.

If God’s sticking with us, and I have to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1 from the Christian scriptures), that obliges me to stick with us too.

Do I have enthusiasm for this? Oh hell no. Sometimes, though—especially in the chaos that rage and hatred inevitably cause—it’s good to throw a stake in the ground and say, “I have to stand here. I cannot do otherwise.” Then, with that stake keeping me tethered to the good and true, I can do the inner work to figure out how on earth I’m going to follow God’s call with a whole heart.

 

Can Love Cast Out Fear?

Last week in this space, I suggested that most of us Americans—conservative and liberal, coastal and middle America, urban and rural—share a weird type of common ground: fear. We fear the white-hot public square, in which anything we do or say might incur wrath. We fear our leaders, our institutions, and our systems, often with good reason. This came up in conversation with a good friend of mine, a conservative Christian and reluctant Trump supporter.

Another of my friends might have an answer to the fear crisis.

She is one of the wisest women I’ve ever known. I’m tempted to call her a mystic and a prophet, but even that doesn’t capture the depths at which she lives every day in her tough urban neighborhood.

Right now she’s focused on two desires. She wants everything in her life to be a prayer, a continual communication through a continually open channel to God. And she wants to be so full of divine love and light that it just floods out from her and suffuses every person in her wake.

Skeptics might scoff at her. But I don’t think they understand the true nature of love. It’s not what passes for love in our culture: romance, or flirtatious fancy, or concern only for family or tribe. Rather, it’s a commitment to seeing every last human as having surpassing worth and dignity—a commitment to tend to their needs as diligently as we tend to our own.

The fourth chapter of 1 John, a book in the Christian scriptures, makes a bold claim about this kind of love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.

That feeds right into our crisis of fear. What are so many people fearing? Judgment, shaming, disparagement—all forms of what that verse calls punishment. If we made the effort to flood our adversaries with God’s love, to listen openheartedly, to gain their trust, would their fear melt away in time? Would they someday be able to trust the love they receive from us and respond in kind? Then could we talk and listen and respect one another?

This sort of thing is easily dismissed as “holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” It is nothing of the sort. It is hard, excruciating work that involves vulnerability, pain, the shame of looking squarely at how we’ve been wounded and how we’ve wounded others.

Love doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything. It does provide a way to live and work together in a way that benefits our species and our planet. It is certainly better than what we’re doing now.

I think it’s worth a try. You?

The Weirdest Common Ground Ever

Many people are bemoaning America’s vicious public square. Few are discussing the weird common ground that most of us share—and what might be the best way to address it.

Two recent conversations brought this into focus for me. The first—with a conservative Christian friend who reluctantly supported Donald Trump—fulfilled a longing I’ve had since the 2016 election: to talk with people like her and understand their thinking. Over the past two years, I’ve asked my Trump-supporting friends for a conversation, but almost none of them would engage with me.

I thought I knew why, and my friend confirmed it: they’re scared to death. They’ve been disparaged and harassed and even attacked by some people on the left, or they’ve heard reports of such abuse, and they don’t want to get hurt.

If you’ve listened to progressives, you know they’re scared to death too. Their fear (from what I’ve heard) seems to focus more on the damage Mr. Trump might wreak on our rights, our system of government, and our world. I’m sure some of them also fear being attacked by members of the right.

It’s not a big stretch to say, in the colorful language of my father, that we’re all scared shitless. Fear is a weird common ground, but common ground it is.

Yes, we can argue that one group or another has a lot more to be scared about, or has endured more decades of disparagement and harassment. In many cases, those claims deserve careful reflection and appropriate action. But what if we also focused—in a separate context, or just for a while—on our common terror? What if we admitted that the person on the other side who makes our blood boil is likely as fearful as we are?

Have you ever noticed what happens to your heart when a child tells you she’s scared? Mine melts. I want to hold her and let her know she’s safe. My love for her overflows. Could the same happen when an adversary says she’s scared?

That leads me to the second conversation, which contains a weird idea for addressing this fear. I’ll post about it next week.

The Other Reason “Spotlight” Is Still Relevant Today

Every year my wife goes off on vacation, and I use the time to catch up on Oscar-winning movies from years past. This summer I saw maybe a half dozen, all of which were superbly made, one of which stood out: Spotlight.

In case you haven’t seen it, Spotlight chronicles The Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It can be painful to watch, as we viewers get to relive the horror of the successive revelations—starting with a handful of priests and blossoming into a worldwide scandal.

Horribly, that scandal is with us even today, which makes Spotlight still relevant. But it’s still relevant for another reason too: its in-depth look at investigative journalism. The sources I’ve read (in The Atlantic and The Washington Post, to name two) attest to the movie’s accurate portrayal of the drudgery, doggedness, and gems of discovery that make for good investigative journalism.

If anything, that portrayal is more relevant in 2018 than in 2015, when the movie hit theaters. It carries two lessons that we desperately need to hear nowadays, long and loud and often.

First lesson: we need good journalism. None of us have the time, means, or energy to gather the full picture on all the news stories that impact our lives one way or another. That’s why we have journalists: to find those stories, explore them in depth, and report them to us.

In another era, this assertion would be dismissed as obvious. It’s not so obvious anymore, thanks to our post-truth culture, and that carries ramifications for all of us. Journalists must prioritize accuracy and thoroughness and fairness in their reporting (as, I think, the vast majority of them do now). Those who would pervert good journalism—the purveyors of deliberate misinformation masquerading as news—need to get their slimy fingerprints off the internet, NOW.

The rest of us get the second lesson: we must stop denigrating good journalists. If they are our source for the stories that impact our lives, and we have trained ourselves never to trust them—worse, to consider them the “enemy of the people”—who else do we have? The default, nowadays, is to revert to the sources who agree with our current beliefs. It’s as if we think, “All media are the enemy, except my media.”

Can anyone else see the absurdity of that?

Is there bias in the media? Sure. The media are comprised of humans—from corporate owners right down to reporters— and humans have biases. Should that prevent us from listening to them? Not at all. We can listen skeptically, pay attention to several sources from different perspectives, read international media as well as that in our own country, suss out who provides the greatest depth and balance. By doing so, we can get as close to a full, accurate picture of the issue as it’s possible to get.

This process is time-consuming. But it’s doable. It may also be essential for the health of our world.

What’s the State of YOUR Nation?

How are you feeling about the country you live in?

Last week, in North America, we had two celebrations of nationhood in four days: Canada Day on July 1 and the U.S. Independence Day on July 4. That got me thinking about a custom followed by all U.S. presidents in one form or another: an annual State of the Union report. Each January, the president comes before the U.S. Congress and declares that “the state of the union is…,” then details an agenda for the coming year. Almost always, the president declares that “the state of the union is strong.”

But why should the president be the only one to assess the nation? Wouldn’t it be good for us to pause, reflect, and assess our own feelings about where we live?

So let’s do it—Choose Your Own Adventure® style.

Here’s what I mean. I have my own thoughts about the nation where I live (the U.S.) and I’ll share them below. If you want to read my thoughts, scroll down. If you’d rather skip them and speak out, go ahead. Pause. Reflect. Then try out these questions: What’s the state of your nation—the one you live in, or your country of origin? What moves you? What distresses you? Use the Comments link below, or email me privately, or join my Facebook feed.

 

* * *

If you decided to read my thoughts, here you go:

The state of my union, today, is ambivalent. Deeply ambivalent.

On the plus side, I’ll start with me and baseball. Every baseball game in America begins with the national anthem. Everyone who attends is asked to stand in respect and remove their caps. When I’m at the ballpark, I take an extra step that many others also take: I put my hand over my heart.

I do this in remembrance of the attributes that, to me, truly make America great.

They include the vast expanses of wilderness and open space and fields and unutterable beauty in so many corners of the U.S.

They include the can-do spirit exhibited in abundance by Americans when we are being our best selves. The spirit that has led to so much innovation and productivity and moving humanity forward.

They include the dedication to liberty that is our nation’s bedrock. When humans are free to pursue their own dreams and visions—more than that, when they are free to embark on the journey to become their best selves—so much good can happen.

And yet…on the minus side, America today is so far from its best self.

One could say it’s always been far from its best self, because of the oppression baked into our DNA: the racism, sexism, marginalization of anyone who is different.

But I think we’re further away than in most times. For one thing, I see outrage and overt hatred in abundance. There is a white-hot intensity in our public square that makes it treacherous to navigate. We respond to tweets and posts in social media at our peril, particularly if our own opinion is even slightly different from that of the original poster.

This makes us less free—ironic, considering our supposed dedication to liberty. When we are not free to act or speak out or explore, the path to our best selves is blocked. Many people, weary of the battle, simply decide it’s no longer worth the effort to speak up or listen or keep abreast of the news. We lose their hearts, minds, and voices, and we are the poorer for it.

That’s just what we’re doing to ourselves—let alone what our leaders and institutions have done to fray our social fabric with policies that demean the humanness of individuals and actions that foster cynicism.

That’s why I’m ambivalent, here, now, in this particular nation. What about you? And if you’re ambivalent, have you found a way forward, a way that works for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too.

Dialing Down the News Intake to Sane Levels

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. That’s because, well, they sort of made me, bubbling to the surface early in the morning of January 1. And they quickly coalesced into a catchy slogan:

More zazen. Less input.

Zazen is a form of Zen meditation in which you sit and focus on the breath. We can talk about that some other time. Today it’s the less input that occupies me, because it drew my attention to an aspect of media that drives people crazy—and, possibly, a simple way to manage it.

I like news. Typically, my wife and I would wake up to NPR, check headlines during the day, and settle down in the evening to our daily dose of BBC World News America and The PBS NewsHour. In between we’d read our excellent local newspaper and a newsmagazine or two.

Last year it all became too much. The daily drama. The endless coverage of the daily drama. The extraordinary depth of punditry over a presidential tweet.

For someone who’s hypersensitive to mental overload, this was like a tidal wave. So when less input came to mind as a resolution, it pushed me to consider ways to reduce the input. And I realized something about today’s news reporting:

There’s a lot of repetition.

Take the current Russia investigation. In a hypothetical week, media outlet X might kick off Monday by reporting what happened over the weekend. On Tuesday, you hear analysis of the latest developments from a U.S. senator. Wednesday brings three historians drawing on the lessons of past investigations. On Thursday someone from the White House leaks a small detail relating to recent developments, and reporters interview other reporters to find out what it means. To wrap up the week, the president tweets about the investigation, and the analysis machine goes into overdrive.

Does your head hurt yet?

Very little of this is bad in itself. Each bit of reporting can be invaluable to someone, sometime. But no one needs all of it.  

So I’m trying a different way to consume news—to stay aware and save my sanity—by eliminating the repetition.

In this new regime, we’ll focus on a concise weekly summation of the world’s news from The Economist. If something calls us to dig deeper, there’ll probably be an article on it in that week’s issue. Or a segment on the NewsHour. We can lightly scan the headlines, educate ourselves on local news, and screen out the rest.

These are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I’m sure we’ll vary it once in a while. And obviously, I don’t know if this approach will work. But it’s simple to try. What do you think?

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

Change Making for Introverts, or, Is There Only One Way to Address Injustice?

I have this friend who’s, well, colorful. He’s a simple fellow, tells you exactly what he thinks, makes me laugh like hell, cusses like an unrepentant sailor, and is as openhearted and generous to his friends as anyone I know.

He’s also a racist.

His attitudes toward people of color have always felt like a thorn in my finger: sharp, painful, dipped in poison. I know I should say something direct, but confrontation is my weakest suit. Instead (in my better moments at least) I deflect: my responses don’t confront him, but they do let him know I stand somewhere different. When he says, “This neighborhood’s changed since the blacks moved in,” I say something like “Oh, that’s cool” or “So it’s more interesting now.”

In today’s zeitgeist, such an approach would brand me as complicit in racism. Perhaps that’s true. But there might be another way to think about it.

All of this came to mind when a TED Talk appeared in my inbox yesterday. The speaker is Sarah Corbett, an activist and introvert, who explains that traditional activism is typically loud, quick to react, assertive, confrontational—an introvert’s version of hell, in other words. She goes on to describe ways in which introverts can engage in activism.

At about the 7:10 mark of the video, she uses the term intimate activism to describe a style that’s nonconfrontational, that involves lots of listening and bridge building, that speaks directly when needed. It allows introverts to serve as (in Corbett’s words) “critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”

It’s like she designed it just for me.

OK, so I’m still not good at the “critical” part of “critical friends.” But I hear Corbett validating an insight that keeps nagging at me: name a social problem of our time, and there’s more than one way to contribute to the solution.

In fact, there may be as many ways to contribute as there are people. When you contribute from your strengths—no matter how inadequate they may seem to you and others—you may make an impact that can’t be made in any other way.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since riding in a car with my friend this past fall. For the hundredth time, he made a disparaging comment about people of color, and for the hundredth time I deflected. And he said to me, quietly, “Are you OK with them?”

I didn’t say much: something like “yes” or “absolutely.” But in his question I felt something shift, something important and deep within him. Maybe all my “lame” responses had, over the years, made a not-so-lame impact.

What I’m trying to say is that every form of activism has value. All those folks who call people out and march in protest and speak loud and angrily in news reports—we need them to do what they do best. But it’s a mistake for me to try doing what they do best. Doing what I do best, on the other hand, might just make a difference.

What about you? How do you address big social issues like racism when they come up in your life?

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

What Can Our Enemies Teach Us?

Please note: This is a delicate topic. If you’ve suffered major trauma at the hands of another person, feel free to skip the article, or at least read with care.

 

I don’t like using the word loathe. I don’t want to admit I can loathe. But three people in my past inspire something like loathing in my deepest self. They all—unintentionally, I believe—caused me a great deal of hurt.

There’s a hitch, though: every one of them contributed to who I am today, and what I can offer the world.

Two of them are brilliant thinkers, and their insights are now part of my foundation. The third was the first person to suggest I become a writer. Writing has become like oxygen to me, so I owe her a lot.

Can I value these people for what they have given to me, even though I’d cross the street to avoid them?

*  *  *

Fast-forward to today. Circumstances have forced me to regularly see, and do things with, someone whose life appalls me. I have watched him shame people and shut down important conversations. For various reasons, I’m also stuck with him. Even weirder, when we must collaborate, we do rather well.

Can I work with and dislike this person at the same time, with integrity?

*  *  *

People like these, I suspect, come to all of us. Perhaps it’s been worse in the past year, with all the drama in our public life. Maybe your most faithful friend offered her full-throated support to Donald Trump, and he makes your skin crawl. Or your loving sister revealed a racist streak you never knew she had. Or you suddenly realized that your adversary on that hot-button issue has taught you a life lesson you cherish.

Right now, in the Western world at least, we’re not well-equipped for this. Our increasing polarization, our default to “us vs. them,” the sheer intensity of rage over the past year: all of it shoves us toward simple, black-and-white, up-and-down decisions on people. We can’t handle the tension, so we run toward the poles. You’re with me or against me. Friend or foe.

This kind of behavior is understandable. The tension is brutal, after all. But if we dismiss people outright, we may miss the gifts they hold for us.

Now for some people in some situations—particularly where abuse is involved—ending the relationship may be the only healthy choice. Self-care is essential to survival, and if our ability to function depends on shutting certain people out, then we owe it to ourselves to do so.

For the rest of us, may I suggest that we not try to resolve the tension. What happens if we hold it instead—if we simply let the pain and the contribution of such people live side by side in our hearts? What if we just let the ambiguity be?

Here is where I think a deep, daily connection with the One—whether God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, whoever or whatever you conceive the One to be—is invaluable. In two spiritual direction trainings I attended recently, the presenters emphasized the necessity of doing our inner work before we can fruitfully engage the storms of the world in this new, populist era. That’s what I’m trying to say here. Most of us, I believe, don’t have the fortitude to hold this tension alone, by sheer force of will. We need help. We need the strength to turn away from outrage and toward openheartedness. We at least need the sense that we are not alone.

And from there? By holding the tension, I think maybe we give love the chance to do its work. Delaying a final friend-or-foe decision opens space to what these people have contributed to our lives, or the areas in which we can appreciate them. It keeps a channel open between us and them: a possibility of open communication, perhaps even reconciliation, in the future.

And here’s the big thing: with every person who can hold this tension, we get one step closer to a society that can hold this tension—a society of people who approach their “loathed ones” with a somewhat more open heart. That one step is tiny, to be sure, but it’s not negligible. And oh, how our world could benefit from a little less polarization, a little less loathing.