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Posts Tagged ‘humility’

Toward a Humble Washington

What would happen if U.S. elected officials practiced humility?

I can imagine the snorts of derision that question may elicit. Yet last summer, amid the brinksmanship over the U.S. debt ceiling, a number of respected public figures raised this very issue, and now I hear that columnist David Brooks is writing a book on humility.

Maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds—which is perhaps why the Fellowship of Reconciliation just published my meditation on humility in Washington. Please take a look, see what you think, and let me know:

http://forusa.org/blogs/john-backman/toward-humble-washington/10143

Reading Material for the Dialogue Journey

I will be away from the laptop for a few weeks, so instead of an original post I thought I’d link you to some other food for dialogical thought. Read one a week, and it’ll be as though I never left!

  • The Abortion Stalemate: Can “I Don’t Know” Break It? In this post, I suggest that starting over again on abortion—from a position other than drop-dead certainty—might help us make some progress in dialogue where little has existed before. The comments are particularly interesting: many of them show a serious and genuine struggle to grapple with an extraordinarily difficult issue. Hearing the wisdom of others is one of the best things about writing.
  • Can Humility Change the World?  From what I can see, this misunderstood virtue is one of the indispensable “habits of the heart” that can reorient us toward dialogue. See what you think of my perspective on the term.
  • Beyond Stereotypes of “Conservative” and “Liberal” Christianity. Dialogue starts from a better place when we view our dialogue partners as individuals rather than through predetermined filters. In that spirit, I share what I’ve learned about the “liberals” and “conservatives” in my faith tradition. Again, the comments are most valuable.

As you may have picked up, I so appreciate those who take the time to read, reflect, and comment on what I write. That goes for you too. I learn a great deal from hearing your voice, and I am encouraged by your support. Thank you. I’ll be back on the blog before you know it.

Questioning Our Age of Hubris (from Miki Kashtan)

Every now and then, I come across an article with penetrating insight into an issue I’ve vaguely pondered. Writing like that is too good not to share.

That’s why I’m passing along the March 28 blog post from Miki Kashtan. A longtime expert in Nonviolent Communication, Miki writes with extraordinary clarity, from the depths of her own soul, about many issues that confront our world. This past week she turned her attention to two aspects of the horror in Japan:

  1. The decline in media coverage, even as the nuclear crisis persists, and what it might say about our cultural attention span.
  2. The hubris that has permeated our culture—even, perhaps, our entire era—and its ability to hurt our future. In the West, we live and breathe a legacy that, for more than two centuries, has touted the sanctity of “progress” and controlling our world at the expense of other values. To what extent should recent events (the Japan catastrophe, climate change, etc.) spur us to rethink this mindset on a fundamental level?

We might revisit these issues sometime in the future, but for now I can’t do better than point you to Miki. Take a look, and feel free to respond, either here or on her blog.

A Stranger in France and a Path to Dialogue

A week in France over Christmas set me to thinking about one of America’s white-hot issues—and how we might deepen the dialogue around it.

While traveling through Normandy and Brittany, we encountered few people who were comfortable with English. I speak enough French to get by, so it became my job to order at the deli, buy stamps from the post office, talk to the cellphone people, etc. I adore the language, so this was a labor of love. But it took extraordinary amounts of mental energy to think through my sentences, understand the other person, and respond in kind. 

By the time my head hit the pillow, I was dead exhausted. And that led me to think about immigration.

Imagine you’re a U.S. immigrant whose first language is Spanish. Every day, you expend all that mental energy to navigate a strange language and culture. On top of that, you have to hold down a job, talk with your kids’ teachers, figure out the banking system, etc., etc. You may want to speak English, but learning a language takes years.

All this leads me to three thoughts. First, there’s clearly more to the immigration issue than “if you live here, you have to speak the language.” Whatever the validity of this position, it raises more questions than it answers. Since mastering English is both complex and time-consuming, can the U.S. take steps to accelerate the process among immigrants? How much accommodation should Americans make to other languages? Should government be involved in this? Should business?

All of this can lead to a rich dialogue, bridge building, and perhaps even a direction for policy. But it requires us to eschew bromides like “just speak English” as the beginning and end of the discussion.

Second, my place in this grand debate reminds me of the need for humility and sensitivity. I have my own (ridiculously liberal) opinions about immigration policy, but then I don’t live in a high-immigration region. It’s essential, then, that I honor the opinions of both Anglos and Latinos in the U.S. Southwest—because they live this issue. No matter how much I think that absolutes of social justice are on my side, I cannot be a party to this dialogue unless I commit to hearing others out.

Third is the surpassing value of travel in broadening our perspectives.  When we delve into another culture entirely, we quickly discover an incredible diversity of viewpoints. What seems self-evident to white Anglo Americans might be completely foreign to a South African matriarch, or an aboriginal hunter, or a young hotelier in Normandy. We cannot help but begin to see our personal worldview as one among many. This reorients us to approach others not only with openness, but with empathy.

In my case, I can hold all kinds of theoretical opinions about immigration and language issues. But traveling to France gave me a glimpse of what it really feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. It left me, quite naturally, with more openness, more empathy. And that was just for a week: imagine how much a year in Poland, say, or mission work in the Philippines might have changed me.   

Given the long, angry history of our national immigration debate—which has lasted well over a century—this openness and empathy might be just the thing to move us from debate to dialogue.

Wielding the Key to Dialogue

Previously on The Dialogue Venture, we looked at one of the world’s most misunderstood virtues—humility—and how it holds the key to dialogue. In the process, I boiled down humility to two basic claims about the self: 

  1. I’m only one person.
  2. I am one person.

The first helps us see our perspective as one among billions and, therefore, acknowledge that others’ ideas might hold as much truth as our own. The second reveals the utter uniqueness of our own beliefs, values, and perspectives—and how, rightly used, they could create more robust solutions for the issues that face us today.

Nice theory, right? OK, let’s see how it plays out in the real world.

I knew next to nothing about healthcare in 2008, when the latest hue and cry for reform began to take shape. A single-payer plan made a great deal of sense to me at first. But as “only one person”—and an ill-informed one at that—I could see how limited my perspective was.

So I sought out other voices. Republicans spoke of tort reform to reduce exaggerated malpractice suits, interstate commerce between insurers to boost competition and lower costs, triggers to the public option. Democrats talked about requiring health insurers to cover people regardless of pre-existing conditions or catastrophic illness. As I listened, something dawned on me: all these ideas had merit.

I hadn’t heard anyone say that.

And that illustrates the contribution of “I am one person” to dialogue. I don’t know the technical ins and outs of the healthcare system, but I do have an unusual ability to consider both/and solutions. In a world where either/or is the dominant paradigm, that’s a valuable gift.

So in a grand dialogue on healthcare, or any issue, even non-experts like me have a role to play. The more people we bring to the table, the more gifts and perspectives we have at our disposal, and more thoughtful the solutions that arise.

This also makes humility an essential component of social change. What if a robust policy framework arises from our grand dialogue? As “only one person,” I look at the power of the Congress, the complexity of the bureaucracy, the staggering challenge of swaying public opinion, and I despair. But, in “I am one person” mode, I look at my gifts and realize I can write. So I write op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, and missives to individual legislators. At the same time, I see that I need others with expertise in recruiting volunteers, drafting legislation, and lobbying elected officials—so I join with them to wield exponentially more clout than I could by myself.

In other words, humility opens us to power of we.  

Humility calls us to hear everyone. Humility calls us to contribute what we have while realizing its limitations. Humility draws us together to think and act with power. Imagine what might happen if everyone cultivated that kind of humility within themselves.

The Key to Dialogue?

Humble. Humbled. Humility. The words don’t even sound pretty. They’ve come to denote some very unpleasant feelings.

I am convinced that they hold the key to dialogue.

Few words generate greater misunderstanding than humility. In the minds of many, it signifies humiliation, self-denigration, low self-esteem. Even the dictionary enshrines such definitions: Google humble and definition and see what you get. Eating humble pie is something no one wants to do. Being of humble means is something no one wants to be.

But there’s a better way to think about humility, and it can release all kinds of potential within us. Rightly understood, humility is complete clarity about our individual selves and our place in the universe. As the Holy Cross Associates’ Rule puts it, “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else.”

So what does this have to do with dialogue? To find the answer, let’s think about “our individual selves and our place in the universe.” I reduce this to two basic claims: 

  1. I’m only one person.
  2. I am one person.

Take the first claim. I am only one person among billions. My perspective, therefore, is one among billions: I see only a small sliver of reality as it is. It stands to reason, then, that others’ perspectives on reality might hold as much truth as my own. If I am curious about the cosmos, I want to hear these perspectives. If I care about the monumental challenges of our age—challenges far, far beyond my reach to solve—I want to hear the ideas and solutions of others. Our collective wisdom is our best chance to see all sides of each challenge and, perhaps, arrive at effective solutions.

Now for the second claim. If my perspective is one among billions, it’s also the only one of its kind. I don’t know whether it might hold the key to solving a problem, or blessing another person, or stimulating a discussion that needs to happen. So it’s important that I share it—tempered with the realization of its place as one perspective.

By cultivating this type of humility, we see what we know—and how much we don’t. We can appreciate just how unfathomable a mystery the universe, and the Divine, truly are. With those realizations, we see the value of sharing and listening.

In other words, the value of dialogue.

This is dense stuff. So an example or two is well worth exploring. Let’s look at one next week.