Archive for the ‘Listening’ Category

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.

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.

Dialogue and Dublin Billy

For a few days in June, Billy and I ate breakfast at the same café. It’s in the working-class neighborhood of Dublin where I was staying for the annual conference of the International Listening Association. I only knew Billy’s name because someone shouted a good-morning to him in the street, the way people do in that neighborhood.

Billy was very old and stooped and evidently near blind. He held his morning paper an inch from his face. We had only one interaction, and I won’t soon forget it.

That morning I wanted to catch up on some news, so after ordering my Irish breakfast (a carnivore’s delight) I looked through the papers on the front counter and picked up the Irish Times. From what I could tell, it’s a solid newspaper, with good in-depth reporting. I turned to go back to my table, which required me to walk past Billy.

He sort of growled at me.

I’m not sure whether it was his diction, his accent, or my hearing loss, but I could not make head nor tail of what he was saying. He said more and, while doing so, pushed his newspaper toward me. The proprietor gently informed me that he wanted me to take the paper, so I did.

It was the Irish Mirror.

The Irish Mirror is a tabloid, with stories often associated with tabloids. There was a news item on the Taoiseach (the head of Ireland’s government) on the front, and then page after page of celebrity news and local murders and what beaches to visit and a great sports section in the back.

This is the sort of paper I don’t pick up when I want to catch up on world news. Yet there was Billy with his hand outstretched, maybe trying to say, “You don’t want to be reading that liberal trash in the Times. Here. Here’s a good paper.”

I wasn’t about to refuse Billy’s offer, so I took his Mirror. And I couldn’t help grinning to myself as I walked back to my table, because Billy had retaught me an important lesson in dialogue.

Here’s the lesson: if I want to understand people who disagree with me, I have to read their newspapers. Or watch their TV news. Or check their internet sources. When I do, several things happen. I get a deeper glimpse into the way they think. Often I find that their opinions make sense within their own worldview.

And sometimes, I find that their opinions make sense to me—or at least I can imagine a “reasonable person” thinking the same things. All of a sudden my mind, and my heart, are just a little more open to them.

That openness of mind and heart, of course, is exactly what’s missing from our American public square. Imagine what might happen if millions of us had more of these Billy moments, or at least were open to them. How far could we go in healing the rifts and bridging the divides that are damaging our country so?

If You’re Concerned About Listening, and You Want to See Dublin…

I just wrote this for an email list I participate in, and I thought some of you might want to know about it too:

If you’re concerned about the future of listening in today’s noisy world, think about joining me at the 2018 International Listening Association Convention, June 20-23 in Dublin, Ireland.

Travel to Dublin may be more affordable than you’d think. I’ve found airfares in my area (via Norwegian Air) around $400 round trip.

If you’d like to know more, by all means email me.

 

*ILA members come from academia, business, education, healthcare, spirituality, even music, and live in 19 countries around the globe. I’ve also found them to be remarkably warm and welcoming to new folks.

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.

Depression, the Dark Night, and Why We Should Pause Before Shouting

I’ve been away from this space awhile, and with good reason.

The good reason is hard to describe. It could have been an episode of severe depression, or a dark night of the soul, or both. My money’s on both but tilts more toward the dark night.

You’ve probably heard the phrase dark night of the soul, but maybe you don’t know how it’s been used through the centuries. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, coined dark night (someone added of the soul later). It describes a period in which the Divine Spirit strips the soul of its dross—sins, imperfections, etc.—and brings it ever closer to God. Other sages have called it the desert or the wilderness. The worst part is that God appears to have left the building.

In my case, so did everything else, which makes the word stripping appropriate. All prayer and meditation ceased. I couldn’t write a word. There was no pleasure in anything (which characterizes both depression and the dark night).

It hurt like hell for months, and I hated the pain. My apathy about writing—which is like oxygen to me—scared me. I wondered if all the things I loved were going away permanently.

My spiritual director and therapist helped immensely. Both pointed out something terribly important: for me, the way I’m made, this is part of normal. It comes with going deeper into spirituality. It comes with being creative. As my therapist said, I should try to stop “awfulizing” it. Just live it.

So I am living it. As a result, things are still dark, but they are stable, and the pain is largely gone. As you can see, I’m just barely starting to write again. Same with prayer.

Why am I telling you this?

Before I answer that, allow me to issue the usual caveats. Mental illness is not to be messed with. If you experience depression, please get help. If you have suicidal thoughts, get help NOW. Medication and therapy can turn your life around.

But our culture teaches us to stop there, because that is the only proper response to darkness. When we are sick, we fight it. When we are sad, we work to get happy. We need to do something, to fix something.

We have lost the idea of staying with the darkness for a season—exploring it, if you will.

Good therapy can help us do this. So can good spiritual direction. So can journaling. Anything that helps us ask fundamental questions about the darkness: What is this all about? Why is it happening now? Does it hold any life lessons for me?

This is the stuff of that contemplative spirit mentioned on the very top of this page. For contemplatives—when we’re at our best—there is a pause between what happens and what we should do about it. In that pause, we observe what’s happening. We listen (to God, to the circumstances, to our own heart) for clues. We listen for the priceless wisdom that often comes out of dark nights. Most of all, we wait with a wide-open heart.

There are so many places in postmodern culture where this pause could help. Think of what would happen if angry Facebook posters paused between the latest outrage and their instinctive responses. Think of how critical this pause could be in the rhetorical buildup between the U.S. and North Korea. Hundreds of millions of lives could hang on the ability of our leaders to pause, observe, and then respond.

I know. That’s a long way from living with depression or the dark night. But what happens in our hearts gets played out on our planet. It’s worth tending the contemplative spirit for that reason. Let alone all the other reasons—like the lasting joy an ever-closer relationship with the Divine can bring.

There Is So Much More to Listening, and Life, Than You Ever Imagined

Not everyone gets advice from a dying cat. Ours has decided to bestow a few nuggets of wisdom during her long exit. They have to do with euthanasia, as you might expect, but even more with listening, and conventional wisdom, and why it’s all more complicated than we ever imagined.

I’ve already written about Madeleine, a 17-year-old cat who has been my devoted companion and is now, due to cancer, in her last days. It’s the point when most pet people start to ponder the gloomy question: when do we put her down?

In situations like this, we tend to seek out wisdom from external sources, and I was no exception. I listened to the advice of friends. I heard veterinarians observe that in most cases, people wait too long to put their pets down. I read several articles discussing cats and pain. Most of this input was valuable.

It also came through a filter: a set of assumptions so deep they’re often undetectable.

As author Linda Andre observes in Disability Studies Quarterly, the bent toward euthanizing a terminally ill pet is strong. “This is the ultimate loving act for our beloved companion animals,” says the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (while also noting that “the decision when to euthanize is as individual and personal as you and your pet are”). Others might put a blunter edge on it: it’s cruel to let them suffer.

For two weeks, I looked at Madeleine’s every move through this filter. She turned up her nose at the food: does she not like it, or is that a sign? Is that plaintive meow the last straw? Is her limp so bad we should just put her down now? Is today the day?

Eventually two things became clear.

First, the filter didn’t describe Madeleine’s quality of life. At the same time I was absorbing all the external input, I also listened to Madeleine: observing her symptoms, her interest in the world around her, that light in her eyes that said life is still worth the effort. And I found that yes, she limped badly, and she may have been in some pain—but she also made it up onto a high bed to catch the sun, and purred mightily when I laid her on my lap, and cleared the room in a nanosecond when she saw me get the cat carrier for a vet appointment. In short, her life was a mixed bag that defied the usual descriptions.

Second, the filter tied me in emotional knots. And my nascent Zen practice kicked in. Why filter everything through something you’re going to do in the future (i.e., euthanize) rather than just observe what is, right here, right now? Why not just greet Madeleine in the morning and observe her behavior as is without asking the question?

Once I started doing this, my mindset changed. I could assess her condition more clearly. My wife and I took delight in Madeleine’s small achievements. They made me realize how utterly extraordinary our most ordinary activities truly are—how, at every moment, we’re living a miracle just by walking around on a world that, with its conditions favorable to life, is the longest of long shots.

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not an anti-euthanasia piece. Putting a beloved pet down has its place, absolutely. No, as I said earlier, this story is about listening, and conventional wisdom, and how complicated it all is.

For instance: I’ve learned that it’s so easy, when faced with a life situation, to assume the conventional wisdom is correct—even “the only way to think.” Madeleine is teaching me to question it where necessary. Even better, she’s teaching me to question it by listening primarily, with wide-open heart, to the person involved. It’s a priceless lesson for spiritual directors like me, and for anyone who wants to love by listening.

The other lesson is that listening is hard work. It demands a lot of us. We can easily do it wrong, even if we’ve practiced for a lifetime. But if we can manage it, the wisdom it yields is priceless.

Ultimately, maybe Madeleine is nudging me to revisit one of the Buddha’s cornerstone lessons. Stay awake. Pay attention. Notice what is. Only then can we, in the words of the Noble Eightfold Path, achieve “right action”—and make the difference we alone can make, to our loved ones and to the world.

A postscript: I finished this piece last Thursday, and the Thursday version is what you see here. On Friday, Madeleine’s quality of life took another big step downward. After consulting with our wonderful vet, we had her euthanized. Sleep well, my friend.