The Syracuse Post Standard, October 2014
In my first couple of years of college I got a part-time job in the psychiatric unit of a prominent urban hospital a short distance from campus. Apparently, the administration had found it helpful to have a well-intentioned, if completely untrained, college student on the floor. While at that time I was thinking about the possibility of a psychotherapeutic profession, trust me, I was completely in over my head. My anxiety was totally off the charts.
I remember on one of my first nights, there was a young woman who was threatening suicide and who had locked herself into the music room. Of course, they had extra keys. They apparently thought it therapeutically advisable to have this young, untrained college student go in and engage her. I myself was not at all sure this was a good plan and felt like a bit of a victim myself as I was almost pushed into the room.
Oh my God, what was I going to say? How could I—feeling as scared and nervous as I was—be in any way helpful to this woman in such psychic pain?
I sat down next to her and was quiet for a few moments. While that might have been considered strategic, I was actually just waiting for my heart to stop pounding enough, so a word or two might come out of my mouth.
“I guess we’re sort of stuck with each other tonight,” I softly offered. “Maybe you could tell me a little something about yourself…”
And so a dialogue began. I heard her life story, and she heard mine. She went on living that night, and so did I. Both of us were in some way healed in the authentic sharing of life stories. This is the power of meaningful dialogue.
While we are living in a time when vitriolic debate is heard all around, there is an appalling lack of true dialogue. What is the difference between debate and dialogue? Debate is what we watch on the cable news stations, where, completely invested in their own position, people talk over each other without ever listening, let alone hearing, the other person. Dialogue is an exchange of perspectives wherein each person is truly open to the other person’s reality. Dialogue includes respect for the other and value for their point of view.
Dialogue, as I mentioned yesterday, is very different than debate. True dialogue brings a certain spaciousness to the conversation such that each person has the room for his or her perspective to change. Indeed, this is how growth takes place. By opening ourselves to the truth and reality of others, our own minds can be expanded. When, on the other hand, we think we have all the answers and that we are in sole possession of the truth, our minds are shut, and we can learn nothing further.
To open our minds to the other in dialogue certainly does not mean that we are necessarily going to agree with everything the other is setting forth. Our capacity for discernment requires that we value our own experience and sense of things. But when we are able to bring a certain openness and when we are willing, to the best of our ability, to stand in the other’s shoes and see the world as he or she sees it, we then can benefit and grow from the other’s perspective.
What is the greatest challenge to true dialogue? Certitude must be right up there. When someone is convinced that they have the corner on the truth and that anyone who happens to disagree with them is wrong, not only do we find certitude—we also find stubborn closed-mindedness. But isn’t certitude what our religious traditions reinforce? Aren’t we implored to “believe”? Actually, faith is not certitude of belief; it is a trust that includes openness to new possibilities—the unfolding of new possibilities that we haven’t even yet dreamed of.
This advanced technological age finds our world on the cusp of potential change. For the first time in human history the “secrets” of other peoples, their cultures and religions, can be opened with a click on Google. Real dialogue is now more possible. Dialogue partners can now clear up previous misconceptions. We can even understand the other not just from our side of history and experience, but also from theirs. Through this discovery each partner has the potential of discovering something in the other’s tradition that unlocks something previously submerged and undisclosed in our own.
The kind of dialogue I mentioned yesterday could very well contribute to the development of a higher form of consciousness—a global consciousness—that would not have been possible before in human history. My hope is that it brings to fruition what might be called the “Second Axial Age.” Here, while we would retain our current unique identities, we would at the same time grow into the deeper sense of being one human family. This, of course, follows the insight of all of our spiritual traditions: We are all connected (and related).