Early in our relationship (it was actually before we started dating), Jill and I had a philosophical conversation. I paced around my sophomore dorm room as I always do when I talk on the phone. The topic for the day was littering. Earlier that morning, I added to the clutter on the Abilene Christian campus, and Jill took notice. For more than an hour, we took turns upholding our positions. I will have you know that I have long since changed my position on littering, likely in part because of Jill’s well-argued position.
This exercise was the first of a custom in our marriage. Even this morning we had a similar conversation, it is the reality of life with me I guess. The truth is I love to discuss things with others. Thoughtful argument is one of my favorite past times.
The sharing of ideas is central to growth and transformation. Dialogue needs to be central to our lives because it opens us up to the things we do not see. With a little openness, dialogue will open you up to the world in new and different ways.
I grew up a picky eater. My mom let me get away with it because she worked so hard to take care of her boys. The menu was set to our unadventurous taste buds. This pickiness wore on well through college into grad school where I was placed in a mentor group. This group held many of its meetings at a restaurant called Ann Thai kitchen, even though I tried to steer the meetings to Arby’s or something lame.
I remember the first time I fumbled through an order at Ann Thai. It came out and I was instantly suspicious. It was well beyond the comfort food of my 23 years, and I struggled through that first meal. I did not get the flavors and I left that meal with no intention to go back.
As the week continued, I was shocked by a craving. The Thai flavors were drawing me back to Ann’s table. I wanted another helping of her Panang chicken. That Friday I went back to Ann’s Thai kitchen to reprise my struggling order, and it did not disappoint. Ann’s became my go-to spot in Abilene. Now, a place is not home until I have found a Thai food restaurant with great Panang chicken.
Although we are interested in quick changes, swift shifts in thought rarely happen. The transforming work of dialogue points to the kind of changes that happened through my experience with Thai food. Transformation bubbles well after a particular conversation. Slowly we find ourselves in a different place because our mind is slowly changing.
The trouble is dialogue is so difficult to come by in our society. As I write, our government leaders stand galaxies apart as to how to lead this nation forward. Regardless of the side of the aisle you lean, you are hard pressed to support the current situation. The trouble is both sides are entrenched. Even before the dialogue begins, all the critical issues have been settled.
Our government is an extreme example of the state of dialogue. Too often we step into disagreement with our position already decided. There is no place to go but away from each other. When I am in these kinds of situations, I fall into the practice of talking past the other person. I choose the talking points of “my camp,” upholding the party line. This kind of conversation builds subjects and objects, and destroys trust.
Communicative reason, on the other hand, seeks understanding. This does not mean it is a dialogue simply for dialogue’s sake. This use of language assumes change can happen if we are all committed to understanding the other. Instead of the vilification of the other, this way works to build trust. These conversations are helpful because both sides are open to a posture of humility. Their positions are left open because they are aware that truth is elusive. Likely, something new will be produced as those involved learn and draw from each other’s worldview, giftedness, and experience. This is much more than compromise it is the product of a community of people sharing their expertise, wisdom, and passion.
The reality is our ideas are not always the direct opposite of our opponents. Dialogue can open us to a preferred future. A future where the many voices are trusted and allowed to function.
I find this kind of rhetoric compelling because I have experienced this kind of change. Throughout my life, I have changed my mind on both large and small issues. Some of these changes came from life with intellectuals and academics. Other changes happened as I lived around folks who lived well. It was not necessarily their intellect or articulate words that changed me. Rather it was the full experience of their story. I found their wisdom as I continued to understand them. Slowly, I found myself in a new territory.