Posts Tagged ‘Proverbs’

Dialogue, Wisdom, and “Pondering How to Answer”

The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil. —Proverbs 15:28

One marvelous aspect of lectio divina (the slow, reflective, contemplative reading of sacred texts) is that it allows “weak signals” to come to the surface—connections between words, ideas, and glimpses of wisdom we might otherwise miss. I’m currently wading through the Book of Proverbs in lectio-like fashion, and it brought me to the verse above.

What emerged for me was the contrast between pour and ponder.

Pour, at least in this sentence, has an urgency, a volume, even a violence to it. Think of the Gatorade that gets dumped on the head of a winning football coach: it comes out fast, it drenches everything in its wake, one pour and it’s over.

Now think of ponder. It is slow, quiet. When pondering, we turn over ideas leisurely and examine them thoughtfully. The movement is precisely opposite that of pour. The outcome of ponder emerges more slowly, but it may make a deeper impact.

As I reflected on this verse, I couldn’t help but go back to my earlier post on the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Think of the pouring that took place soon after the tragedy: certainly an outpouring of shock and grief, but then a veritable tidal wave of opinion on every issue that could possibly relate.

Unlike the verse from Proverbs, I’m not thinking in terms of righteous or wicked here. In fact, not all the pouring was unhelpful; some of it, on the contrary, is required reading for the dialogue we must have in the wake of tragedies like this. (I’m thinking particularly of the haunting and honest “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”) But I could not avoid the notion that all this pouring crowded out any space for pondering.

So it is with U.S. culture. We are “always on,” with advertising in every conceivable space, 24/7 news, instant access to the chatter of social media on demand. So many public places (doctor’s waiting rooms, bank branches) now come equipped with TVs, which are inevitably on. Everything seems to require background music.

In other words, we are an always-pour culture. We could use more pondering. Many of our personal and social ills can only come to resolution through pondering. Issues from climate change to the fiscal cliff to raising a difficult teenager cannot be solved when the pouring absorbs all our time and attention. They are simply too complex for that.

How can we make space for pondering? The only way I know is on an individual basis. Facebook and CNN aren’t going away just because we need a little space. That calls on us to listen carefully to our inner compass—to sense when we need to enter the fray and when we need to “come away and refresh ourselves.”

What do you think?

Keeping Civil in an Angry World

In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…


It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.

Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.

“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”

There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”

Why should we have to keep conversation civil?

Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.

Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.

This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.

Toward others.

When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.

As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.

And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.

A Tiny Step Toward Dialogue

The front-desk person at our local gym can be uncommunicative at times, or so I heard before my wife and I joined recently. I’m drawn to people like that. So I set out to get to know her a bit.

On my first day, I made a few lame jokes while filling out the application. She only responded to the last one, but that gave me hope. Every day thereafter, we exchanged a few words as I checked in. Bit by bit, she started to talk more. Now she gives us a big smile whenever we come in. At 6:45 a.m., that’s a major accomplishment.

In my musings about dialogue, I find myself coming back to a bit of sage advice from the biblical Book of Proverbs: A soft answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). Have you ever seen this in action? Perhaps you’ve encountered a snarly co-worker whose whole face relaxes when she hears a kind word, a defensive co-worker who shows his human side when someone expresses genuine interest, or even a stressed-out child who responds to a soft voice.

A kind word, a soft voice, genuine interest: these are so easy to give away. Yet the signal they send is game-changing. In their presence, people open up, their hearts soften, their barriers come down—even if only a little at first. They see you as someone who, just maybe, can be trusted. Each “soft answer” builds the trust a bit more.

Now imagine that I wanted to discuss abortion, or gay marriage, or even a possible improvement to the gym with the front-desk person. Because we’ve built a bit of openness and trust, she is much more likely to hear me and respond honestly—in other words, to engage in authentic dialogue.

An apocryphal story from the 1978 Camp David peace accords tells of the opening meeting between U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Egyptian head of state Anwar Sadat, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Before delving into control of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in the Sinai, and other issues that nearly derailed the talks, Carter asked Begin and Sadat to talk about their families. As each man talked affectionately about his spouse and children, his adversary glimpsed the human side of the person across the table. That bond, it was said, contributed to the breakthrough. The soft answer, the genuine interest, inspired them to dialogue more deeply than if they had approached the negotiations without it.

Here as elsewhere, I think people of faith have an exceptional advantage. A connection with the Divine fosters what St. Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit,” including gentleness. We can be gentle because it springs from the Divine within us. I found an online devotional that expresses this well from the evangelical Christian perspective.

Try it. Find an unpleasant person and respond to her with a soft answer. The results may surprise you.