Posts Tagged ‘America’

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.

What’s the State of YOUR Nation?

How are you feeling about the country you live in?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald vs. Facts: Make America Great Again

What does it mean to make America great again?

As much as anything else in Donald Trump’s campaign, his supporters seem to glom onto this one big idea, or parts thereof. So it’s worth looking at. And if you look at it hard enough, you realize each word raises questions, such as:


Which vision of America are we talking about? Listening to Trump supporters, I think many of them are focusing on the America that, once upon a time, held out the promise of a secure, prosperous life. As the story goes, you could get out of high school, get a job at the plant, work there for 40 years, and save enough to provide a great life for your family—a nuclear family, in a neighborhood, where everyone knew everyone else and lent a hand in times of need. That’s a compelling story. No wonder people want to get it back again.

But there are other Americas. There’s the America in which success came only to white people of European origin. There’s the America whose interventions in global affairs have wreaked havoc as much as they’ve borne fruit. There’s also the America I cherish: the America of vast natural beauty, a bedrock belief in liberty, and the inspiring (if sometimes annoying) can-do spirit. Which are we talking about?

Great? Again?

What on earth do we mean by great? Look again at the visions of America described above (and add your own). Which were great? Was there ever a time when America was nothing but great (as the slogan seems to imply)?

Meanwhile, the word again implies that America was great at one time; which era would that have been? Would it be the America of the 1950s: a massive engine of economic opportunity and systemic racism? Do we mean the America of the 1940s, with its spirit of self-sacrifice and horrifying (though necessary) world war? What about the 1920s, with its sunny optimism and Prohibition?


Of all the words in this slogan, I see this one as the most seductive—and the most dangerous. Make implies that we can return to a great America (however the hell you’re defining it) simply by force of will. That ignores the global, impersonal mega-forces that have changed the world beyond recognition: the massive flight to cities, which changes social norms; the yawning gap between the skills of many U.S. workers and the skills demanded by the fast-changing marketplace; the constant drive for businesses to streamline workforces and cut costs; the continuing impact of automation and the rise of artificial intelligence, which eliminates jobs; etc. Etc.

Notice something about this. None of these trends is anyone’s fault. All of these trends are far beyond the ability of one person, or group, or even nation to change. Seen in this light, make looks like a mirage.

As a siren song, make America great again is compelling: many Americans have lost a lot amid the world’s changes. But as a prescription for action, it sputters. I would rather we seek a way forward in the world as it is than try—and fail—to return to what was.

How Do You Honor Those Who Served?

It’s a natural question to ask in the U.S. today, which we commemorate as Memorial Day. Many Americans have spent part of the day visiting cemeteries, attending ceremonies and parades, and saying thank you to the veterans who, thankfully, came back alive.

I so deeply appreciate the sacrifice that people in the military make—particularly those who were willing to sacrifice their lives. And while the commemorations mentioned above are meaningful, I would love to contribute more somehow. I’m just not sure how.

On top of what to do, there’s also an interesting distinction to be made here. One lesson that, I think, the U.S. learned from Vietnam is that it is essential to honor veterans even when we disagree with the war in which they fought. We’re talking about this today in Occupy Café—an online presence for the Occupy movement, created in part by my friend and colleague Ben Roberts. Ben posed the question, and here’s what I posted in response:

You and I are essentially in the same place: desiring to honor the war dead (perhaps not just “our” war dead?) while witnessing to war’s ultimate absurdity. In wrestling with this, I tend to focus narrowly on the motivations and cost to those in the military. Many have given their lives; many others have given up important life stages, the chance to watch their children grow, even their mental and emotional stability. They did this (or so I assume) because they saw a need to sacrifice those cherished personal lives for something larger. I may vehemently disagree with the cause they fought for, but I can still honor the fact of their self-sacrifice—particularly as my own faith tradition (Christianity) calls for a similar brand of self-sacrifice. In the sacrifice they make, they truly are heroes.

That’s enough from me. How do you honor our fallen service members? And how do you tread the line between opposing a war—or striving for a world in which war is unnecessary—and honoring those who served in it?

Have Values Ruined Our Dialogue?

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times makes a provocative point in his excellent analysis of today’s political dialogue. About halfway through, he suggests that a confusion between values-speak and politics-speak is making things worse. In Rutten’s words:

Values do not admit compromise; politics, which is the prudent application of values in pursuit of the common good, requires compromise.

Some of what we’re experiencing today as bitter political rhetoric may reflect the leaching of the values debate into the generality of our political life.

The problem with politics in which every question and situation is framed as a matter of fundamental values is that it makes compromise impossible. There simply isn’t any way to meet the other side even halfway without, in some fashion, ceasing to be yourself.

Rutten may well be right about the current interplay of discourse and values in contemporary America. But unlike him, I don’t think it has to be this way—especially if we come to the belief that we are not our values.

Here’s why that matters. I have often said that authentic dialogue calls us to set aside (however temporarily) our preconceptions, including our values, in order to listen with full attention and an open heart. That’s too much to ask if our values define us.

But what if our essence is deeper than that? Many faith traditions point to something deeper: the soul, the life force, the divine spark. If we identify with this essence, we can relax our death-grip on the other things we often use to define ourselves: status, wealth, and position in society, but also our proclivities, perspectives, and yes, values. That “relaxed grip” empowers us to set aside most everything to engage in dialogue—without “ceasing to be ourselves.”

This doesn’t mean values are irrelevant to dialogue. Indeed, they help us weigh what we have heard after we have heard it: what it might mean for us and our understanding of the world. But by not leading with our values—by not declaring certain things “off limits” or automatically filtering the other’s perspective through our own—we free ourselves to listen deeply. Deep listening builds trust, and trust is essential for making dialogue, and collaboration, work.

So we can hold values and still reach across divides. Good thing, too. How can we even hope for a civil society otherwise?