Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Spirituality’ Category
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?
I’m in the fourth day of Facebook detox.
If you read this space regularly, you’ll know that Facebook has inspired a good many dialogues (and articles) for me. Some of my favorite colleagues I know only through Facebook. It’s become one of the world’s great gathering places, so it would be silly for me not to be there and learn what I can.
And yet it’s just too easy to slip away for a moment, take a quick break from work, disrupt whatever I’m doing to check Facebook. It’s easy to respond to x conversation, add a quick comment on y page, maybe post an update or a question of my own, watch that video (it’s only two minutes)….
Before I know it, my concentration’s shot. I don’t know what or how much I’ve accomplished. Each day ends with a vague sense of waste. So I’m off (or nearly off) Facebook, at least for a few days.
This seems to be the way life goes, for many of us at least. We engage, we retreat. We make our mark in the public square, we withdraw to reflect and recharge.
It’s hardly a new idea. Early Christian thinkers spilled a lot of ink reflecting on “the active life” vs. “the contemplative life” and opining which was better. In modern times the general conversation speaks of introversion and extroversion.
For me, the best is a blend of both—or, rather, a flow between the two. I’ve spent much of my life in a more contemplative place. Now, with the book and the articles and the conferences and whatnot, my life has taken an active turn, without leaving the contemplative behind.
This flow, I think, is essential for us as people of dialogue. Individual dialogues are demanding work. They require intense periods of listening, deep reflection, compassion for the other, and great care with language, among other things. We can’t sustain these wonderful efforts forever. We have to process, give our souls a break, let our preconceptions and the input from the dialogue play together.
How do you know when the flow is shifting? This is where I think listening comes in: listening to one’s own heart, to one’s exhaustion levels, to the tenor of the conversation at that moment, to the situation, to the other. If we develop an ear for these things, we can let the shift happen when it comes, respect its timing, and go with it.
Oh, it helps to listen to loved ones too. With the Facebook business, I ignored the shift for quite a while. Fortunately, one passing comment from my wife woke me up to face what was happening.
I’m sure I will be on Facebook again at some point. If I listen to my heart with enough honesty, I’ll even know when that point is. One can only hope.
Have you ever done a Facebook detox? Did it help? How? Feel free to share.
This morning, my email brought me a story in which the author delivered a sefer Torah, the long scroll used in synagogues, to a fledgling Reform community in Israel. The actual hand-off, which took place in an airport, involved some initial consternation:
I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, [the community’s] student rabbi . Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren’t sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn’t have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf, ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, “May it bring good things for the people of Israel!”
Without realizing it, the older woman crossed a divide simply by expressing the devotion she holds in her heart every day.
That story inspired the first sentence in a brief meditation I wrote from my own tradition (Christianity). I shared it on Facebook, and I share it with you here:
People can be wonderful. People can be horrible. The gospel story of Jesus’ birth contains evidence of both. One reason I follow my faith is that it, like many other faith traditions, assures us that wonderful wins. Or will. To all of you who celebrate it, have a blessed Christmas.
To all of you, may the coming year bring more divides crossed, more bridges built, and a deeper experience of the divine, whatever you conceive it to be.
Miki Kashtan writes more deeply about the human experience than just about anyone I know. When reading her blog, I have the sense that she has confronted a difficult issue, taken it into her deepest self (an act of courage if there ever was one), and written down the wisdom that emerges in that interface between her heart and the problem.
This week Miki, who is a renowned trainer and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication, has turned her attention to the unfolding story in Ferguson, Missouri—and thereby to deeper issues of race and policing. I cannot do better than to refer you to her article, “Responding to Violence with Love for All.” An excerpt to whet your appetite:
There are times, and this is one of them, where my ongoing choice to stay away from public events and electoral politics no longer stands up to my inner sense of moral integrity. This is a time where I am just too clear that it’s only my privilege that makes it even an option to choose. No, I don’t think that privilege is “bad,” nor do I aim to make it go away, nor believe it’s possible or even always desirable to do so. Rather, I want to consider my privilege as a resource, and to keep asking myself day in and day out how I mobilize my privilege and use it for the benefit of all….
This is the first and deepest commitment of any act of nonviolent resistance: I am willing to endure suffering; I will not dish out suffering to anyone else. As people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King knew, and others like them, known and unknown, our willingness to endure suffering is one of the very ways we can reach the hearts of those who are at present committed to cruelty. Nonviolence implies a willingness to trust that everyone is redeemable, even if we don’t know how to do it. When we expose our own vulnerability, we invite theirs.