Posts Tagged ‘fear’

Fearing the Change That Dialogue May Bring

Last week I told you about a dozen or so Christians—gay, straight, conservative, liberal, and people who identify in other ways—who will gather in November to have a two-day conversation about LGBT issues. I mentioned how thrilled I am to be part of this, and how encouraging I’ve found the emails from participants.

I didn’t mention anxiety. But that’s part of the package too.

Why anxiety? It’s not about disagreement. It may be about the intensity this gathering will inevitably generate: no matter how gentle we are with one another, a conversation about LGBT issues in 2011 across divides is not a walk in the park.

What really stirs my anxiety, however, is the risk of being wrong. What if, as a result of this meeting, I have to change my mind about something? What if that something is important to me?

I write a lot about the need to relax our grip on our sacred cows. I don’t spend enough time acknowledging how difficult—and, at times, even inappropriate—that is. Our beliefs and values come from a lifetime of experience. In some cases we have expended a lot of thought and energy to arrive at them. Some of them strike at the heart of what it means to be uniquely us in the world. They shouldn’t be given up easily.

But I don’t think dialogue can come to full fruition unless we set them aside temporarily (as best we can). Otherwise, it is too easy to listen to others through the filter of our own beliefs. This filter can distort the message of others and prevent us from hearing what they are really saying.

Conversely, suspending our beliefs frees us to hear other people with full attention. It gives us the space to explore their thinking from the inside out: to sit with their viewpoint, probe this or that line of thought, gain a deeper grasp of why they think that way.

We get to know them in a way we never could with our filter up.

Is this inherently risky? Sure it is. In exploring new ways of thinking, we might come to see their validity.. If a new thought contradicts our beliefs, we may have to wrestle with that contradiction. Our beliefs may have to change.

But here’s the good news, particularly for people of faith like the ones gathering in November: we don’t have to hold our faith together by ourselves. As members of an Abrahamic faith tradition in particular, we believe in a Presence beyond ourselves that can—and, I think, does—safeguard us.  This sense of safety gives us the freedom to explore without worrying what we might lose.

My trust in that safety isn’t nearly what it should be. My hope is that it’s stronger come November, so I can be fully present to those around me, listening with my whole self, free to explore ideas, so that we might move closer to our ultimate goal: deepening our grasp of truth and our compassion for one another, no matter what we believe.

 

St. James on Dialogue

How do you engage in dialogue when your tongue is “set on fire by hell”?

The biblical letter of James says quite a bit about the power of speech, none of it good. With the tongue we bless and curse. In our speech is “a world of iniquity.” The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Worst of all, according to the passage, no one can tame it.

Hyperbole? To an extent—though anyone who has suffered from the destructive power of gossip, slander, or insult can attest to the truth of these words. The question is, once we know how destructive our speech can be, what do we do about it?

After 35 years of studying the Bible, I thought I had the answer nailed. Our job as people of faith was to vet our speech carefully, think before we speak, remain silent when in doubt. It’s hard to argue with that advice: we do want to be precise in our language, so that we communicate our insights clearly and accurately and discuss sensitive issues with care.

But this solution, if it is the only solution, has serious flaws. Most notably, it is too easy to slide from careful speech to an attitude of fear. Aware of the issues our speech can raise, we begin to fear that we can’t get our words right, or that people will misinterpret them, or that they will inflame sensitivities on certain issues. As we distrust our tongue, we distrust ourselves. We might choose to hide ourselves within the bounds of “nice speech,” the kind that doesn’t bring up “politics and religion.”

That may get us through difficult situations without taking flak. But it prevents us from sharing our uniqueness—that one-of-a-kind perspective that just might change someone’s mind or shed new light on a problem.

I think the author of James had something else in mind. Early in the passage, he or she asserts that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect” while freely admitting that “all of us make many mistakes.” In other words, it would be lovely if we could conquer our tongues—but it ain’t going to happen.

So what will work? The author waits till the end to offer this hint: “Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” Translated: “out of the mouth the heart speaks.”  We can only say what we are.

The challenge, then, is to change who we are.

This is why I believe our preparation for dialogue must start long before we get to the dialogue table. We need time to change from the inside out: to reorient our heart to openness and compassion, our mindsets toward curiosity, our awareness to the fact that we don’t have all the answers. If we do that, we can approach others with an orientation toward dialogue—with a clear mind and an open heart.

Best of all, we don’t have to keep such a close watch on our speech. When we speak from a good heart, good words tend to come out.

Changing from the inside out is a long process, of course, and taking care with our language is a virtue. But inner transformation can liberate us to share freely, speak boldly, and listen intensely—to participate fully in dialogue and the potential it can bring our world. A powerful message from an ancient sage.

Healthcare Turns Violent

Many pundits and elected officials have condemned the violence of the past week. Have any of them asked whether they themselves contributed to it?

I don’t mean deliberately contributed, of course. Whatever you might think of our legislators and commentators, they do not generally encourage constituents to shoot up offices or mail white powder to their opponents.

But consider the climate that has built up over the past year. Early on in the healthcare debate, public figures raised the specter of death panels. Some encouraged the idea that Medicare isn’t a government program. The dreaded cry of “socialism”—which, thanks to U.S. history, ignites fear and loathing whenever it’s uttered—has come up early and often. So has “government takeover of healthcare.” Indeed, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) used the word takeover seven times in a short segment on last week’s PBS NewsHour.

Death panels. Socialism. Government takeover. These words shed no light on the specific defects of the legislation. Rather, they carry emotional weight, and the emotion they incite is fear. Fear, in turn, begets anger.

No wonder so many people are so angry. No wonder a few of them, lacking impulse control, cross the line between rhetorical fury and physical violence.

What would have happened if our public figures had cooled the rhetoric and tried to discuss specific proposals? We might have discovered the validity of a whole range of ideas, including those from “the other side.” Voters could have gained a more nuanced view of the pros and cons. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats could have collaborated with each other, resulting in better legislation.

As it is, the fractiousness of the past few Congresses created the climate for the nastiness of the healthcare debate—which, in turn, has had our society running at a fever pitch for more than a year.

Violence is deplorable. Rather than piously condemn it and then return to the language that fosters it, however, our public figures would do better to reconsider the current political climate, the words they use in the public square, and the kind of world we might have if we worked together rather than separately.