Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Spirituality’ Category
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.
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.
You may find the title of this post somewhat odd, especially for a blog about dialogue. But the aftermath of the U.S. election has brought up some things for me, and they have to do with silence.
Silence looms large for me. For years I’ve been practicing contemplative prayer, in which we sit silently before God, opening our hearts wide to the susurrations of the Spirit. This practice has changed my life in all kinds of difficult and wonderful ways.
Not surprisingly, then, silence has been my go-to place since November 9, when the wreckage of this savage, unending campaign became all too apparent.* I was not ready to take up the facile calls for “healing” and “reconciliation” that pop up at the end of every campaign. To me, this earth-shaking event required serious reflection. So I opted for a season of silence and introspection—or, as I wrote on Facebook, “just sitting before God with the damage we have wrought.”
One side effect of silence is that you start to notice things. In the past week, two things have come to mind.
For one, I’ve been dumbstruck by how, as a collective culture, we never shut up. Not ever. Right on the heels of the election came a torrent of words: angry rejoinders, petitions, redoubled commitments to causes, new strategies for dialogue as a response to the election, and yes, the usual calls for unity. All of them facilitated by the relentless 24/7ness of social media.
None of these are bad things in themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re the very stuff of our life together, and certainly of a robust democracy. But in that maelstrom, the value of silence easily gets lost.
So does the value of the other thing that’s come to mind: simply living with the “negative” for a while. Many commentators would like to speed past the rage, fear, and dread to get to new plans and initiatives and countermeasures for a brighter future. Again, Lord knows, we need plans and initiatives and countermeasures. At some point.
But when we sit with the “negative,” I think, we tap into a deeper place from which our actions became more heartfelt, more authentic, and maybe more fruitful.
For example: In my reflections over the past eight days, my horror has moved to lamentation—which connects me deeply to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Large swaths of their writings are consumed with bewailing the utter ruin of their beloved Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E. Some of the psalms written in this period paint a terrifying picture of loss, despair, and rage.
We postmoderns don’t like this sort of thing. We want to get right to the good stuff. But the prophets teach us that dwelling with suffering connects us deeply to life as it is, and to others who suffer (which is all of us). When billions of our human compadres suffer daily, don’t we do well to get (as the prophet Isaiah writes) “acquainted with grief”? What deep wells of compassion and empathy for others might be tapped when we live with suffering ourselves?
Maybe this difficult silence is only for me. Maybe we really need millions of hands on deck, right now, to start changing things for the better, fend off the tide of racism, etc. But maybe we need some of this silence too. I know I do. What about you?
*Full disclosure: I have been truly interested in seeking dialogue with Trump supporters, and I still am: their sense of feeling left behind, to name one thing, has been massively underheard over the past 20 years. At the same time, I see the election of Mr. Trump as a travesty, and since understanding that view is essential to understanding this post, I’m admitting it here.
Last night, BBC’s World News America led with yet another story on the suffering in Syria. I was reluctant to watch it—not because I don’t care about that horrendous conflict, but because it was yet another story.
How much news from Syria, or from anywhere, do we need? How much can we take? Is there a point at which we “get the point” and can skip the following stories with impunity? How many of the “following stories”?
Let’s start with basic attitudes toward news. For me, the news is required reading/viewing. I try to write with nuance about some difficult and complex issues, and there’s no way to do that without a great deal of input, both hard news and diverse analysis. For others, news might guide them in how to vote, which charities to support, or where to roll up their sleeves and help out.
My understanding of my faith also plays a role. It tells me that every human being bears the image of God, and that God cares deeply, massively, for those who suffer. So I’m called to care deeply for them too. The way I can connect with their stories, their situations, is (in part) through the news.
News is everywhere these days. We have 24/7 news stations. A myriad of websites are always available, always telling stories. Some of us throwbacks still get the newspaper every day.
The problem is, the macro-level stories and issues take time to develop—usually months or years. So these news media, needing something to fill the space, tell slight variations of the same story from one day to the next.
It’s a barrage.
And with each day’s news, the decision comes up again—especially in stories that involve suffering. Watch too many of these, and we risk becoming desensitized. There’s a limit to how much we can take. It’s why a lot of people either check out entirely or (as I’ve done) go on news fasts.
On the other hand, maybe the next story provides an insight I never had before. Or the story on suffering in Syria tells (as it often does) of this mother in that city who has lost x children in the conflict. If I miss the story, I lose the insight, or I fail to connect with this particular divine image bearer.
Of course, this isn’t just true of news from faraway lands. How many stories about our local homeless folks do we need to hear before the same difficult decision—to watch or not to watch this segment, on this night—faces us?
Ultimately, we make the decision story by story, day by day. And I don’t think it gets easier. Have you found a good way to absorb news stories without going to overload? How much news do you need?
I asked myself this question while journaling last week. I did not expect the wild ride through my unconscious that followed.
The question has become central for me because I find myself enraged at people on the other side of the debate: the folks who want to build a wall on the Mexican border, or block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or press for English-only policies. That persistent rage feels corrosive to my soul, like something I need to work through.
The odd thing is that immigration issues don’t really make an impact on my daily life, at least not on a visceral level. My list of friends is rather thin on people from other countries, and none of them plan on immigrating. My part of the U.S. is not really a magnet for immigrants, as (for instance) California and the Southwest are.
In short, my rage is all out of proportion to the thing that’s triggering it. Over the years, I’ve learned to see that and ask, “What’s going on here?”
Asking that question led me to the question in the title. Why does immigration matter to me?
I started exploring the question in my journal, and it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. My stance on immigration quickly led to my passion for welcoming everyone carte blanche into my life. That, in turn, pulled me into a whole multitude of issues around loss and grief that I have yet to fully understand. Trust me, they are large issues.
I haven’t come close to revisiting them at this point, one week later. I am not surprised, however, to discover that my iron grip on my beliefs—and the rage that accompanies it—have relaxed a bit.
Next, I imagined putting the same question to a relative who is particularly strident about immigration. I reviewed what I knew of her life situation, talked it over with my wife, and tried to gain an “empathic glimpse.” Sure enough, the answers to “why is immigration important to her?” came quickly: the healthcare benefits that her neighborhood’s immigrants can access and she can’t; the language barriers that make her life difficult because she doesn’t speak Spanish; the economic insecurity she lives with day by day.
Suddenly she seemed more, well, human. Her situation deserved some sympathy (while taking nothing away from the situation of the immigrants themselves). I had a chance, at least, of not letting this issue damage our relationship.
So now I’m wondering: what if we asked that “to you” question regularly, not only of others but, much more important, of ourselves? What if, instead of snapping off a superficial, abstract answer, we slowed down our lives and our hearts enough to consider the question in greater depth? How might the insights we uncover soften the way we approach our adversaries? Might we glimpse the humanity and perhaps the suffering behind their positions?
Is this sufficient for policymaking on an organizational level? Of course not. But I would submit that it is necessary. Asking this question, and listening for the answers, enable us to bring our whole selves to the issue at hand: not just our cerebral sides but our hearts, our shadow sides, everything that might inform a wise (not just a rational) decision.
Have you asked this question of yourself—on any issue? What happened? Feel free to share here.
It was day four of a five-day retreat. We’d just finished another soul-baring breakout session, three of us practicing new interpersonal skills and getting critique from one of the retreat facilitators. The exercise would have been grueling on any day; on this particular day it came after hours of deep, intense lecture on many things dark and psychological.
I could say we were exhausted, but exhausted doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Right after the breakout, the facilitator left. The three of us retreatants were left on our own. And we started to compare notes: our opinions of x facilitator’s belief system, whether y facilitator had completely misunderstood us, the off-the-record thoughts each of us was harboring and are y’all thinking the same thing?
In other words, gossip.
OK, I am using a very specific (and somewhat edited) definition of the word, from the OED: “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.” Yes, gossip often carries overtones of rumor mongering, malice, and other nasty stuff. I’m referring more to what church people sometimes call parking-lot conversation: the casual chat, often held in parking lots after a meeting, where folks linger to let their hair down and say what they think. Sometimes the conversation just involves ideas, but because ideas come from other people, we sometimes end up talking about other people too.
This kind of chat gets a bad rap. We refer to it darkly as “talking behind each other’s backs.” The Bible confronts “whispering” and “tale bearing” with a hearty dose of condemnation.
So, in true contrarian fashion, allow me to raise a few good points about gossip, at least as I’m defining it.
For one thing, this brand of gossip is an effective reality check. It can be useful when an event stirs something within us that resists what’s been said, and we can’t tell whether or not our opinion is abnormal. “Did you hear that? Did it seem weird to you? I couldn’t help hearing it and thinking _________; what about you?” This is especially important for adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle mightily to figure out what normal is.
Similarly, “parking-lot conversation” can help us ferret out the essential from the trivial. During contentious meetings, I’ve found myself speaking angrily about an issue without taking the time to determine whether this is the battle I want to pick. The “meeting after the meeting” provides a calmer place to re-examine what happened, whether I should have just let it go—or, conversely, whether it’s important enough to keep pursuing it.
Informal conversations also allow us to reflect openly on people who may be toxic. Such folks typically excel at manipulation, the use of language to conceal or mislead, crafty tactics to divide and conquer, etc. It can be nearly impossible to figure out their game—and then defuse it—without comparing notes with others.
Certainly we need to take great care with this kind of conversation. We must watch our own souls for signs of the aforementioned malice or the desire to spread rumors. Still, gossip (defined this way) does appear to have its good points. I’m sure there are others. Can you name a few?
Note: Occasionally I write a post for this blog, set it aside to attend to something else, and forget about it. The post below came into being shortly after the landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. The time references, therefore, are off, but I think the basic points still hold, so I’m offering it now.
Every now and then, a text written centuries ago speaks almost eerily to an issue right here and now.
Take this week’s Collect of the Day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer—a brief, structured prayer that connects with the Bible readings assigned for that day. (In case you need to use the word in conversation, it’s pronounced KAHL-lekt.)
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the
foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself
being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together
in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a
holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Beneath the euphoria I’ve felt over last Friday’s Supreme Court decision (yes, I favor marriage equality), a line of questioning has lingered in the back of my mind. What now? What happens to our dialogue? More important, how do we—all of us, on all sides of this issue—continue to hold our “adversaries”?
This quandary has a lot of moving parts. In the present, supporters of marriage equality want to celebrate, and well they should. Opponents may want to grieve or express anger, and well they should. Doing either in the presence of one’s “adversary” is difficult at best: it could too easily lead to gloating from one side and churlishness from the other.
But maybe people don’t care that much whether their reactions come off that way, because they don’t plan to associate with the other side any longer. Maybe they read this Court decision as the permission they have long sought to ignore the other side—a fulfillment of the wish that the disagreers would just “go away.”
I wrote about this wish in a recent article. As tempting as it might be, it’s dangerous. Our Collect of the Day, read expansively (i.e., beyond the specifically Christian), gives some hints as to why.
- Ultimately, there is no other side. Note the verb tense in the first sentence: “you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Cast more universally, nothing we can say or do or argue mitigates the truth that we are all humans and will all share this planet for as long as it lasts. Yes, within our species lie significant differences and dynamics that we must address. But the other side can’t go away; ultimately, there is no place for them to go
- We are called to live that reality. That’s the essence of “grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit.”
- We need help. This is, after all, a prayer—not a declaration or a promise or a resolve, but an admission that we just can’t do this “one human family” thing on our own. Christians believe that help can only come from God. However you parse it, though, the fact that we need help remains.
So what do we do? I think, in the short term, we celebrate or rail against the Court decision with our allies. It is good and right to do so. And then we keep on going with our “adversaries.” Maybe we continue the dialogue over LGBTQIA issues; maybe we don’t. But we do keep the lines open. Who knows whether, somewhere down the road, on a different issue entirely, that adversary may become your most important ally?
The sun had turned the grass a fluorescent shade of green. My wife’s tulips glowed ivory and red and yellow. Our next-door neighbor was pushing her toddler in his tree swing. A Saturday as lovely and ordinary as you can get.
I wandered over to the neighbor’s yard for a chat. I did not expect her to change my thinking about some of the hottest issues in education.
As we talked, the details of her job came out. She teaches middle school in a neighboring state. The challenges of mandated testing—Common Core and all that—are making life difficult for her, her colleagues, and her students.
That brought me to my usual place of ambivalence on Common Core.
On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a more noble profession than teaching. The teachers I know work long hours and are unflagging in their dedication. On the other hand, I can see the urgent need to equip U.S. kids to thrive in a brutally competitive world, and that may mean adding rigor to the learning experience.
On the third hand (yeah, I know), teachers’ unions leave me skeptical. In my state, at least, they wield tremendous power. They spill a ton of ink on shaping public opinion. So when I hear the buzz against Common Core, I can’t tell whether it’s the teachers talking or the unions.
As a result of this, the dark side of my brain starts wondering, maybe teachers doth protest too much. Maybe they’re too resistant to change. I don’t like those thoughts, but I don’t know enough to gauge their truth.
But then, during the chat with my neighbor, something clicked. It dawned on me that, of all the teachers I’ve talked with about Common Core, No Child Left Behind, etc., not a single one was happy with the changes in the educational landscape.
Yes, unions are powerful, but not powerful enough to create that kind of unanimity. Rather, something important is being said here, it is coming from the mouths of teachers themselves, and I need to listen to them afresh.
That led me, in turn, to dig deeper into the pros and cons of Common Core. Guess what? As with just about every issue, there’s way more nuance and complexity than meets the eye. The two largest U.S. teachers’ unions supported Common Core at first. So did many teachers. Opposition to Common Core is not coming from one end of the political spectrum, but rather from across the spectrum (though each “side” has its own reasons).
To think all this started with a casual neighborly chat.
Here’s the point. In the field of dialogue, we talk a lot about process, and that’s good. Academics and practitioners have designed some terrifically effective approaches to facilitating dialogue in structured settings.
But, as I point out in my book, there’s inestimable value in fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart as well—something so fundamental to our deepest selves that, when presented with an opportunity like this Saturday chat, we instinctively respond with curiosity and compassion. Equipped with this habit of the heart, we are continually ready to see opportunities to listen, learn more, connect with others, and bridge divides.
And trust me, those opportunities are everywhere.
P.S. If you want to educate yourself on the Common Core debate, try these articles for starters: a Wall Street Journal op-ed generally in favor of Common Core, a piece from education historian Diane Ravitch on her opposition, and a USNews survey of who’s for, who’s against, and why.
I have to confess: I don’t like Walmart.
I don’t like the layout or the crowds. I don’t like the sub-subsistence wage they pay employees. I don’t like the havoc they wreak on local businesses and communities.
Clearly the entire business is an unmitigated blight on our society.
Clearly I’m as prone to simplistic bias as the next person.
That bias came to light when I woke up last week to a series of reports about Walmart on NPR’s Morning Edition. The segment on workers did highlight the pay issue I mentioned above. It also mentioned Walmart’s employee retirement plan and interviewed neighborhood supporters of the company. It quoted some people as observing that, at least in some communities, Walmart jobs are better than no jobs at all.
The day before, in a segment on community impact, the reporters noted that the Walmart effect is more complex than simply “Walmart comes in and destroys local business.”
Yes, they also raised the oft-repeated criticisms of the company. But overall, the picture presented is more nuanced than I would have thought.
I don’t know why I’m surprised. Time and again I run across input that forces me to re-examine—and usually revise—my opinions and biases. More often than not, these are opinions and biases I didn’t even know I had. The new input uncovers the dross in my inner life and empowers me to change or root it out.
(As a side note, this closely resembles a dynamic well known in the Christian tradition: with divine help, our sinful tendencies become apparent to us, and we strive to clear them out of our hearts in order to make more room for God.)
This attitude toward input is part of fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart. If we give input the opportunity to change our misperceptions, we’ll be more likely to approach the next bit of input anticipating the wisdom it may hold. We bring to it not the usual defensiveness, but a spirit of curiosity and inquiry.
This becomes all-important when that input comes to us face to face, via a living breathing person. Now we are not just welcoming another point of view; we are welcoming the human being behind it. When she says something with which we disagree, we’re more inclined to ask her to explain more, so we can explore the truth with her. And just like that, dialogue begins.
When was the last time you let some new input shape your old ideas? What was it like? Would you do it again, and why or why not?
Is it enough to condemn evil without trying to understand it?
I’m not sure the answer is obvious. On the one hand, dwelling on the wretchedness of villainy (to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi) can be corrosive to one’s inner life. It’s why we humans often tell one another to “focus on the positive,” or why St. Paul instructs his Philippian friends similarly:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
On the other hand, two things can go wrong if we condemn evil without understanding it. First, we could miss out on the fact that the “evil” isn’t evil at all, but simply another perspective that merits a hearing in dialogue or some other format. Second, in cases when the evil is evil, we could miss out on uncovering the best ways to defeat it.
Throughout his must-read article in this month’s Atlantic, contributing editor Graeme Wood puts the Islamic State phenomenon squarely in the second category. To correct this error, he puts forth a well-researched report on the specific beliefs that drive the caliphate.
If Wood’s analysis is correct, then actual dialogue with the jihadist leaders, even if remotely desirable, is impossible: their interpretation of Islam requires them to forswear the peace and bridge building that dialogue fosters. However, understanding the intellectual foundation of ISIS would greatly enrich our dialogue about ISIS—particularly the dialogue of Western leaders as they seek more intelligent, more effective strategies for bringing the rogue state down.
That is Wood’s thesis, and I agree. It doesn’t make reading about the Islamic State any less stressful or horrifying. A steady diet of such articles would mess with my mind, and probably yours too. Which leads us back to the question: does it make any sense for average citizens, with no power over strategy, to let this stuff into their minds? What do you think?