“Somebody ought to do something.” How many times have you said that to yourself as you marked yet one more piece of evidence that our society is floundering? I’m just as guilty as the next person of despairing over circumstances, then pushing my anxiety aside, filing it into an overstuffed file of “things I can’t do anything to change.”
Except this time we’re not pushing it away. Last night several of us gathered for the first of what we hope will be many evenings of dialogue about issues that matter. Note the word “dialogue,” not debate or argument or unfriending.
If recent years of growing tension in the public square didn’t show us that we have to find a better way of being together, the presidential campaign did. We are a society of sound bites, Facebook memes, and internet trolls. I believe that we all yearn instead to know one another more deeply, and to be known. Our fast-paced lives are dominated by busy schedules and information overload that leave us little time for meaningful relationships. Yet those relationships are what give us life. The only reason we dare add one more item to our schedules is because this is an investment in becoming citizens of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “beloved community.”
Exactly one week after the 2016 presidential election, I had what seemed like an epiphany. I was mulling the idea of a dialogue group after discussing it with my friend Wendy. The words “Knock, knock” inserted themselves into my consciousness. I have learned to pay attention to these occasional stirrings, recognizing them as gifts from the Holy Spirit. (Most of the time, anyway. My inner compulsions have their voices too, but I can usually tag them as pesky gremlins and move on.)
Knock, knock. Well, who’s there?
Who’s there? We have spent so much time debating the issues and the failings of the candidates, letting the fever pitch of the media invade our personal relationships, we have forgotten to care about the person behind the position. We have caught the insidious disease of demonizing and objectifying our neighbors instead of asking them why they think and feel the way they do.
We have forgotten that each person has a story.
On the day that I got knocked on my noggin with inspiration, I traveled a few hours to Des Moines to hear Krista Tippett speak at Drake University. She is the host of “On Being,” one of my favorite podcasts wherein she interviews people from different disciplines about spirituality and the art of living. The page is described as “Taking up the big questions of meaning with scientists and theologians, artists and teachers — some you know and others you’ll love to meet.”
I have been reading Tippett’s latest book, Becoming Wise, so I wasn’t surprised when she proposed the need to create spaces for civil conversation in our country. She is bold to assert that the word “love” has been absent from the public square, but it needs to be brought front and center as the ground on which we grapple with issues and listen to each other, probing to understand what is at stake for each person so that we can work together to make thoughtful decisions about our common life.
An epiphany, and a lecture by a wise teacher. It felt like a calling, then, when these events converged. It gave me the courage to move ahead with the idea of creating a space where people can come together to talk about political issues, societal concerns, and questions about the meaning of life in a gracious atmosphere.
It is my turn to “do something.” And so “Knock Knock” was born as the pilot group met last night and gingerly began discussing an excerpt from an “On Being” podcast titled “How to Live Beyond This Election.” Those participating shared their longing to understand their family and friends, to navigate discussions thoughtfully and with curiosity instead of devolving into anxious argument. We tried listening for understanding, and it felt wonderful. It was only one dialogue, but we were smiling, and asking questions, and verbalizing our concerns, and experiencing a small measure of healing.
Each time we meet, a “Knock Knock” will get our discussion going: an excerpt from a podcast or blog, a news story, a song–an item that gets us thinking and talking. We will ask what it is in our own stories that resonates with it. If it is an issue that requires political action, what is at stake for each person? We will ask the why beyond the what. We will pay attention to “who’s there.”
With this beginning, we will gain momentum. We will wade together into the messy issues of our time with tools for dialogue that I believe will be more than civil. As we shared our hopes and concerns in a wine bar on a cold December night, we all agreed that we have to start somewhere. What better place to start, than with love?
To learn more about starting your own group, go to “The Civil Conversations Project” online, created by Krista Tippett and her On Being staff. Choose “Act” in the menu. Go for it!