One person describes her mini-internal-roadmap when encountering
significant difference during dialogue.
Pam Jarvis attends dialogue and assists in the running of TCL. She raises her high school freshman daughter, enjoys watching The Office with her cat, and likes to have people over for dinner. She graduated just last spring with an MDiv from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently discerning her place in ministry and mainline religious denominations.
Having gone to a Christian seminary and spending four years thinking about my faith, I felt pretty good coming into dialogue for the first time. I figured I could easily describe what I believe and why. Which did, in fact, turn out to be true! But my participation in dialogue pushes up against other areas that turn out to be challenging. In fact, I suspect that these are the very areas dialogue is supposed to push up against, and the ones that perhaps provide challenge for many people who participate. Specifically, I want to share about my experiences in those moments when I encounter difference. Especially difference that contradicts what I believe.
We talk each gathering about a specific topic, some more sensitive than others. That sensitivity touches on me to varying degrees, sometimes in surprising ways. I knew the week we were scheduled to talk about death would be hard and anticipated that the joy conversation would be fairly easy! Both of those turned out to be true. I find it difficult to predict which other topics will push emotional buttons for me overall. In some cases, the conversations simply disclose information that adds to my overall technical understanding about other belief systems. Nevertheless, I can guarantee that each discussion will include one of my fellow participants saying something about their beliefs that runs up against what I believe.
When this initially happens, I feel a flush through my body, like heat. Sometimes it almost feels like my breath is taken away - I stop breathing for a second! At these moments my initial reaction is to come back with a counter-statement, the way I might with one of my friends over lunch or on facebook. So I have to intentionally stop myself. I keep myself from saying anything out loud. That’s the first step, and a big one for someone who occupies a position of privilege in our culture. I’m used to offering my opinion and getting my voice heard. So, I remember the rule we have set for our gathering: seek to understand before being understood.
The next thing I do is breathe. I take a breath and bring my attention back to the conversation, which has continued in my internal absence! And I listen. I continue to listen. Then, most importantly, I let go of whatever it was that popped in my head to counter with. I just let it go and try to hear what the person is saying in real time across from me. When I do that, I have created space to actually hear their experience instead of sitting in my own. I recognize that I can’t just paper over another’s beliefs or dismiss them, relativizing or replacing them with my own narrative. I start to wonder and want to know more. And at that point, questions arise rather than statements. I find myself in a relationship rather than an argument.
What makes this so hard is that my faith is not just something I believe. My Christian identity is just that: a very part of what makes me who I am. I deeply value my faith system and my own faith path within it. Someone expressing their path can sometimes feel in the moment like a threat to my very being. I recognize that it might feel this way for others as well. And in our culture, Christianity is dominant. I understand better now that it is my responsibility to internally make a space and leave room for those practicing non-dominant faith traditions and for variety within my own. This seems like a small thing, but for me, I realize now that I benefit when I try. Things stay complex and have grey areas and don’t get nailed down into a neat package. The real people I am talking with take on dimensions having nothing to do with me. And what I have gained is a group of people I’ve come to value and care deeply about, regardless of our differences or similarities. Within dialogue, my challenge has become my blessing.