Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Spirituality’ 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.

 

Where Convictions and Friendship Collide

You’re talking with an old friend over coffee. At one point in the conversation, she uses a word that sets off every alarm bell in your head. Clearly she believes something you don’t believe at all. What do you do?

Bill and I have been discussing God for decades. He is a Calvinist, a deep and brilliant thinker, and takes the Bible literally (more or less). We see most things very differently from each other. I love him like a brother, but even more like a role model, because I have watched God’s grace flood his life for many years.

The other day we got to talking about the existence of truth, and as part of that conversation he brought up the idea of certainty. Is it possible to be certain about things in this life—certain about God, about what you read in sacred texts, about anything?

Now I do not like certainty. Not one little bit. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was certain about my beliefs; it wreaked havoc on my emotional life and separated me from people I love. I’ve seen this happen to others as well. From my perspective, less certainty—and more willingness to say, “I don’t know”—would make the world a better place.

So when Bill brought up the word, I had lots of good reasons to laser in on it and proclaim the dangers of certainty.

I didn’t do it.

Here’s why. Bill and I are getting on in years. Our worldviews are well established, and they’ve borne much fruit in our lives. If I start spouting about certainty, I’m doing so from my worldview. That likely won’t be any use to him.

On the other hand, I had no idea what he meant by certainty. So I asked him.

His answer surprised me. He spoke of that inner peace when life seems so good and everything just feels right. Paradoxically, what he meant by certainty was subjective.

Yes, here too I could have gone off on him: certainty can’t be subjective! It’s a logical contradiction! Instead, I took in his meaning and turned it over in my mind, grateful for having learned a little more about the issue at hand, and a little more about what makes Bill tick.

You might say I gave up on truth, or at least intellectual rigor, for relationship. You may be right. That’s what fascinates me. At this point in our friendship, this stage of our lives, this cycle of the universe, it seemed more fruitful to deepen a friendship (and to address the whole conversation) than to rant about a truth or, rather, a truth as I saw it.

What do you think of this choice? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not? Are there other situations where you’d have chosen the other way? (There are for me.) Feel free to share here or on Facebook.

The Second Step Toward Dialogue Is a Doozy

People ask me what my book is about. I tell them it’s about how to change from the inside out so you can talk with people who drive you nuts.

They say, “Boy, do I know someone who could use your book.”

That response always makes me laugh. So I’m reluctant to admit there’s a problem with it.

I’ve seen the problem repeatedly over the past two years—ever since the 2016 presidential election changed so much about the way we talk (or rather, don’t talk) and live with one another in the U.S.

Over and over again, on social media and at family gatherings and after church and who knows where else, I hear people bemoan the state of America’s public square. We are so polarized, they say. No one talks anymore. Everyone shouts at each other. The world is filled with outrage. If only we’d listen.

This recognition of our parlous state is, I think, the first wobbly step toward dialogue. You have to know there’s a problem before you can start to resolve it, right?

The dead end comes in the (usual) second step.

Right after no one talks anymore etc., many people follow up with some version of it’s the other side’s fault.

I heard it again at a gathering of relatives recently. One person, a brilliant and ardent conservative, noted the lack of dialogue and proceeded to lay the blame on the political left. At my (liberal) church, the talk shifts from “how bad it is” to bemoaning the right’s contribution.

By the way, these folks have a point. People at the ends of the political spectrum especially, left and right, are contributing to this climate. But while the faultfinding is correct, it’s not useful. It’s a second step that takes us nowhere.

These days I’m pondering a different second step—a step my book alludes to. It asks, how am I contributing to the problem? Or, even better: how can I change so that my contribution inspires harmony rather than hostility?

Let’s be honest. This second step is a doozy. It asks people to look inside themselves, and that’s not always a pleasant view. I know because I’ve done it.

I think a framework of faith and spirit can help here. At their best and fullest, many of our faith traditions encourage us to “examine ourselves” in an effort to become better versions of ourselves. Ideally the process is gentle—not about guilt and judgment, but rather about self-discovery, a flowering of one’s deepest self in a way that makes a difference in the world.

That can be a magnificent adventure. I know because I’ve done it.

If people could take this useful second step, it might change things. But how do you take it? And how can those of us who’ve gone down that road support others as they take that step?

Those are the questions that challenge me right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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.

Incarnation: Maybe It’s Not Just a Jesus Thing

Always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everyone else.   —bumper sticker

 

It’s a little weird when your profound life lesson for 2017 turns up on a bumper sticker.

For the past few years I’ve been getting painful reminders of how I’m just like everyone else. In my loftier moments I’m prone to thinking I’ve made progress in certain areas of my life—that I’ve moved beyond petty envies and dark prejudices and grudges and other schmutz of the soul.

And then something comes up and I realize it’s all still there. I am just like everybody else. Not really worse. But certainly not better.

Just. Ordinary. Average.

This has me thinking about incarnation.

If you’re familiar with Christian thought, you know the word well. The Incarnation is the name given to God’s becoming fully and utterly human in the person of Jesus. This isn’t about taking on a human shell or form: it’s becoming one of us. Which means a lot of schmutzy stuff: pooping his diapers, banging his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, possibly squabbling with his saintly parents, wandering off like a normal curious preteen in a big city like Jerusalem, having wild visions of his own destiny, making life choices that look scary and strange from the outside.

Dying.

As the Bible says, Jesus suffered and was tempted and challenged in the same ways we are (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). For me, it’s a wonderful doctrine—maybe the best Christianity has to offer. What it says to me is that God, the One force and creator behind the entire Universe, gets us. Firsthand. From the inside out.

What if we’re called to the same thing?

That may seem silly at first. We don’t need to become human. We are human. We’re already “incarnate.”

Well, yes we are. But do we actually live it: mindfully, fully, aware of our ordinariness and therefore—all-important—our ordinariness in solidarity with all other human beings?

This is the lesson I’ve been learning. All kinds of jealousies rise in my heart when someone else steals my spotlight, and I see I’m envious and insecure just like everyone else. I’m suddenly confronted with a deep need or vulnerability—again—and I see I’m needy and vulnerable just like everyone else. Something I write uncovers an insight I didn’t even know I knew, and I see I have these wonderful gifts and talents to share, just like everyone else.

So when I go fulfill one of God’s two most basic commands, “love your neighbor as yourself,” I can see my neighbor as myself. Because I’ve had practice in learning to love myself with all my schmutz, I can learn to love my neighbors with all their schmutz.

Suddenly that horrible thing about my friend X doesn’t seem so horrible because I’ve got it too. Suddenly I can look at the whole person and just embrace them all, beautiful and well short of beautiful. I am them, I can see myself in them, so I can love them as I love myself.

How is this not incarnation? Sure, we’re already human. This is about being fully, attentively human. What Jesus did. What we, just maybe, are called to do too.

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.

Things Change Slowly Because They’re Bigger Than We Think

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.

 

Why I’m Not Inclined to Dialogue Right Now

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.

A Time for Dialogue, a Time to Shut Up

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.

How Much News Do We Need?

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.

But…

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?