Path on Staten Island
(photo: fake is the new real/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

It was strange to experience my conversation with Elizabeth Alexander about finding fresh ways to talk about difficult things, which became so painfully relevant in light of the Arizona shootings and the soul-searching around them. It’s a kind of relevance I wouldn’t wish for.

But it has emboldened our commitment to “The Civil Conversations Project” that we began in the fall of 2010, and that continued with Frances Kissling, a differently powerful and counterintuitive voice who is best known as a long-time pro-choice champion. But from inside the embittered and entrenched abortion debate, she reveals lessons in human and social change — something more than civility, as she describes it, and more meaningful than our usual goal of “finding common ground.”

One week ago, I also hosted a public forum on creating “civil conversation” here in Minnesota, where we produce our program. A diverse group of citizens gathered and brought their questions and their intentions to create new ways of living together while holding passionate disagreements. Many joined us online, and I learned as much as I contributed, and will take that learning into our work moving forward.

We are experiencing this as a work in progress and wondering, for example, if the project’s title, “Civil Conversations,” is even the right umbrella term we should grow into. Because we learn to speak differently, in my vision, in order to live differently. Words, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, make worlds. Our civil conversations with Richard Mouw, Elizabeth Alexander, Frances Kissling, and others coming up, including Terry Tempest Williams and Vincent Harding, are not just about talking. They’re about mining fresh vocabulary, lived virtues, and lessons learned where ideals have met hard reality. If you have ideas for a better title/headline/umbrella term for what we’re doing — with you as partners, and in public service — we’d like to hear it.

And, last week, we put one of our favorite shows back on the air, John Polkinghorne on quarks and creation. In moments like these, I do love the scope of what we can and must explore while tracing what it means to be human and how we want to live. That inquiry, taken seriously, can both help us shape lives of meaning in space and time and, mercifully, experience our lives as larger than the news cycle. They can help us place ourselves and our confusions in cosmic perspective.

So with the events of the past month still fresh in my mind, I’m listening to insights of John Polkinghorne — a conversation I had five years ago — in a whole new way. I’m remembering that science, too, can help us cultivate hope and a new imagination about human and social change moving forward. He offers this, for example:

“There’s a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven’t seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you’re too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you’re too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It’s these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.”

Share Your Reflection



That is a wonderful quote that really connects some dots I've been having trouble with. I also appreciate the term cultivate, Hmmmm...the chaos edges, which often seem so very absurd along with being uncomfortable are the very place where the compost becomes a compilation of everything heaped upon it, in discards and is heated up exchanging rot, things outgrown- for the richest soil - ready for new seeds.
With all that said- perhaps Cultivating would be a good part of a new title. If I come upon a better tag title, I'll chime in.
Thank you, my thoughts will be today- of new growth.
Take care.

How about a discussion on developing a healthy relationship to the "self" or "ego"? Not just getting rid of it -- it can be useful, and in any case will always be there -- but not taking it "personally." For example, as in Japanese Zen, the experience of "kensho": the self is seen as just another tool, the way a carpenter sees a hammer or saw; but neither defines him. Another model might be addition and recovery: if friends and family of an alcoholic try to do an intervention, the alcoholic might say "But I am my bottle; you just don't love me for who I am." Of course the alcoholic isn't really his or her bottle, just as we are not our "self" or "ego"; in each case, it's just the addition talking. And in each case, it's not a matter of getting rid of one's ego, nor all the bottles of vodka in the world, but of not taking it personally. It's also true in poetry: Keats talked about "Negative Capability," the poet's ability to set aside his ego in order to write. Or Yeats said "All that is personal soon rots, unless it is packed in ice or salt."

John Polkinhorne's observation about change happening at the edge of chaos echoes a comment Frances Kissling made in your recently-aired interview. She asserted that change in the abortion debate will come from discussing the uncomfortable areas within both sides' views.

Thanks for bringing us these fascinating ideas and bringing disparate people and ideas together for us to find these unexpected connections.

How about a program about people trying to help young people learn to talk about difficult things and overcome their sense of separateness from each other, between themselves and the world, between themselves and people who don't share their life experiences (because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, etc.). I am a college professor who finds that to be the hardest, yet most meaningful and important part of the work I do. I can teach my subject matter very easily, but finding ways to bridge these divides and get my students to embrace the urgency of that task is very, very challenging.

I like drawing attention to our ways of creating dialogue, as it would benefit us all to have more of it and less hyperbole. Because there are millions of good minds thinking, surely there are millions of excellent and constructive ideas not shared or not furthered because of our current polarized, frenetic communication style in our media and elsewhere.

I'm suspicious and impatient, however, with doing much talking about talking. We need to just get started.

Some people rise to positions of leadership and their comportment guides us all. These folks, including all of us who speak and who listen, can serve to guide the kind of respectful communication that produces an ear for good ideas. Leadership need not be officially granted, it may be as small as one's own circle, and it's never cast in stone. We can decide who we listen to, and why. So we can both provide that leadership and support it by focusing on well spoken, reasoned, ideas conveyed with respect. And we can reduce reactive, hyperbolic, exclusionary, aggressive communication by identifying it openly and immediately turning attention away from it.

If those of us who are capable of deciding how we communicate are willing to do so, I think useful and constructive solutions to our problems will arise more naturally. And kids will naturally learn what is expected in public discourse. We don't always need programs or institutional movements to do this work for us. We can all participate, and frankly I believe we have to if we're going to turn the tide of our current mood of vitriol in our media.