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The spaces between us
Q: Have you found a place that nurtures dialogue?
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Our vision for Disco Dialogues is to build a community of thinkers and to create a space for this community to dialogue with each other. Initially we shared our posts with friends that were on similar quests as us, wanting to reconnect with these remarkable individuals. Through the questions raised in our weekly posts and each of our perspectives, we’ve strived to bring some reflection into our subscribers' lives. This year we started to invite some of our readers to share their stories to allow for new conversations to emerge.
This week we invite Daniel to share his thoughts on the value of asking good questions and the importance of “in between” spaces. Daniel is a monk and marketer, theologian and entrepreneur, who runs a non profit called Sympara. (Disclosure: Mitali is on the board of Sympara).
It was a good question for dialogue: What’s your covenant with the world? I asked the writing group to think of covenant in terms of reciprocity: What do you need from the world? And what are you willing to give to the world? A week later we sat in a virtual circle and reflected on our essays.
Susan wrote of giving her presence to the world. She promised to pay attention to the people who cross her path and to stay present with whatever reality confronts her. “Staying present is not going to demand a lot of energy – I really don’t have that much energy to give anymore,” she wrote. “But I think my many years and experiences on this planet have given me tools that allow me to fulfill my side of this covenant.”
Some heads nodded in agreement. Others were not sure about Susan’s admission of limitations. But we pressed on, as we always do, without forcing a unity of thought.
Our group is called Aging for the Common Good. We meet on Wednesdays for six weeks. Sympara, the nonprofit organization I lead, has sponsored a dozen of these writing groups over the past two years. Sympara’s mission is to repurpose religious assets for the common good, and such assets include the human resource of the aging spirit.
I think we’re learning that the quality of our dialogue depends on our questions. A bad question, which is a judgment barely masked as curiosity (e.g., Why do you keep saying that?), closes the door on dialogue. But a good question (e.g., Why is that important for you to say?) enlarges the space we share. Bob Stains, who consulted with the Harvard Negotiation Project, encourages sincere inquiry ,
“You want to scrub your questions of any intent to change the mind of the other or to shame the other.”
The current writing group is made up of the regulars: Maggie, Tuck, Barbara, Jim, Susan, Julie and me. Between us we’ve lived from five to nearly nine decades. Each week we excavate our experience and place it before the group. We’re reluctant to call these offerings wisdom, which may be a sign of wisdom. Humor, often the self-deprecating type, shows up in our writings and dialogue. This too may be a sign of wisdom. Or it’s simply the fruit of a group that’s grown comfortable, understanding of each other, safe: a community.
After Susan, someone else shared. We commented on certain passages. We made connections across the essays. Julie quoted the poet e.e. cummings:
“...having is giving and giving is living.”
Then something happened. Something opened in our midst like a curtain parting. We saw each other even clearer than before. And we knew we were wrestling with the age-old dilemma of “being versus doing.” From that space of sincere inquiry, we drew out another question, our prompt for the following week: Is it enough to just be?
With good questions dialogue opens another space. It’s the in-between: that area which invites a new way of seeing things, the stretch that reveals our freedom to think and to change our minds — more than once.
The in-between is a different space, like a third place, as sociologists call it, where individuals are not constrained by a single domain, such as home or work, or a single belief or identity. In this other space we come upon the opportunity to take up the offerings of our experience and to create with that material whole selves and whole communities.
To enter dialogue requires a kind of relaxation, a loosening of posture, a letting go. This is difficult, as our national politics so clearly shows. Yet it is possible if we are truly curious about the in-between.
Neither dialogue nor community is about arriving at unity of thought or becoming one. We miss that point in our politics and even in our most intimate relationships. Writing on marriage, the poet Rilke says,
“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development.”
The in-between is what actually makes us curious. It’s that unknown space which compels us to ask questions. And the in-between is available to all of us. Indeed, it’s an asset we might yet make the most of, if only we are willing to go there together.
As Rilke puts it:
“(O)nce the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”