Today’s blog comes to us from author and writer, John Backman. John Backman’s new book is Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing). As a blogger for Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, he writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. His website is located at www.dialogueventure.com.
The Best Path to Dialogue Is Through Your Deepest Self
If you read Lauri’s blog for any length of time, you will have all the resources you need to talk with—and listen to—the annoying relative at Thanksgiving dinner. Or the neighbor who voted for the candidate you loathe. Or the faithful believer from the religion you abandoned years ago.
Does that seem hard to believe?
You might think the gulf is too wide, and no one would blame you for that. When we encounter people who disagree with us, our gut leads us toward anger, defensiveness, self-protection, fear, or some combination thereof. More often than not, we shy away from those who disagree with us, or we angrily state our opinion and brook no dissent.
Some of this comes straight from our DNA. Fight or flight, after all, is built into our status as creatures on this planet. But our culture has taught us well too. Black-and-white thinking inhibits dialogue and even casts it as irrelevant. (Why dialogue with anyone when you already know The Truth?) Too many pundits and radio hosts would rather shout than talk. The structure of our media reduces complex, difficult social issues to sound bites and platitudes. Elected officials, all too often, model how not to dialogue with others.
Behind these obstacles to dialogue are entrenched systems that we cannot change on our own. So why not start with the one thing we can change—ourselves?
Oneness Transforms Us…
This, I think, is where God comes in. We can change ourselves by ourselves, but overall, we’re not very good at it. (For evidence of this, think weight loss programs.) We do better with help—and who better to help than the One who can change us permanently, thoroughly, from the inside out? How better to access help than to seek Oneness with this One?
Oneness with God—or, rather, participation in our Oneness with God—has fueled the journeys of saints and mystics for millennia. An experience of this union brings us unutterable bliss, joy, and love. But it does something else too: it changes who we are.
I first experienced this soon after undergoing a born-again experience in my teens. By the end of three days, not only was a long bout of depression lifting, but as I told a friend with some consternation, “I’m starting to love people I can’t stand! That’s not my style!”
The experience of Oneness comes from a mutual opening. As we open our hearts to God, God opens the divine heart to us. And we start to “look like God.” Have you ever noticed how long-married couples start to resemble each other, or how the opinions of our closest friends “rub off” on us? This is what happens here. When we foster our own personal connection with God, we gradually begin to reflect God. We begin to desire compassion and connection above all else—because God desires them above all else.
These are precisely the virtues that make dialogue possible. As they become part of our souls, we move beyond the practice of dialogue and become people of dialogue at our very core. Dialogue and its prerequisites—curiosity, compassion, attentiveness, listening—flow from within us.
…and We Start to Listen
When that happens, we stop marshaling our counterarguments while pretending to listen to our neighbor blather on about his candidate. Instead, perhaps for the first time, we truly hear what he says and think, “I wonder how he got there?” Our children can dig in their heels about getting a tattoo and we want to ask, “Why is this important to you? I really want to know.”
Nothing about this inner transformation means that we will automatically agree with our adversaries, or that we will “win them over to our side.” What does happen is that issues of agreement or “winning over” become irrelevant. The other’s well-being, and our relationship with that person, become more important.
The process of reaching out from this deepest self feeds upon itself. In many cases, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), so when we communicate curiosity and compassion, our adversary responds in kind—or at least dials down the intensity. The more we hear the perspectives of others in this way, the more we come to realize that our perspective is one among billions, and that other points of view might be just as valid as ours. That redoubles our curiosity about those other perspectives, and we delve deeper into dialogue.
A Matter of Time—and Practice
Rarely, if ever, does this happen in an instant. It is why, instead of the single word conversion to describe the process, I prefer the Benedictine phrase conversion of life: it implies a slow, daily turning of our deepest selves toward God. We draw toward Oneness one day at a time, one step at a time.
In the process, we draw closer to reconciliation across the divides that plague us—not necessarily to agreement, but to a commitment to greater wisdom and one another’s humanity above all.
How do we get there?
The Oneness is real. Our job is to enter into it. Most faith traditions include spiritual practices that, over the millennia, have been shown to foster our drawing closer to God. Seek out the practices in your tradition and try them out. Or find the practices that resonate with you and make them a daily practice. Daily practice is the best way to open ourselves to the daily shaping of our souls that is conversion of life.
THANK YOU JOHN for this beautiful post. It is a great lesson for all of us……me included. 😉