Mining Fresh Vocabulary, Lived Virtues, and Lessons Learned

Mining Fresh Vocabulary, Lived Virtues, and Lessons Learned

Path on Staten Island
(photo: fake is the new real/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

It was strange to experience my conversation with Elizabeth Alexander about finding fresh ways to talk about difficult things, which became so painfully relevant in light of the Arizona shootings and the soul-searching around them. It’s a kind of relevance I wouldn’t wish for.

But it has emboldened our commitment to “The Civil Conversations Project” that we began in the fall of 2010, and that continued with Frances Kissling, a differently powerful and counterintuitive voice who is best known as a long-time pro-choice champion. But from inside the embittered and entrenched abortion debate, she reveals lessons in human and social change — something more than civility, as she describes it, and more meaningful than our usual goal of “finding common ground.”
One week ago, I also hosted a public forum on creating “civil conversation” here in Minnesota, where we produce our program. A diverse group of citizens gathered and brought their questions and their intentions to create new ways of living together while holding passionate disagreements. Many joined us online, and I learned as much as I contributed, and will take that learning into our work moving forward.

We are experiencing this as a work in progress and wondering, for example, if the project’s title, “Civil Conversations,” is even the right umbrella term we should grow into. Because we learn to speak differently, in my vision, in order to live differently. Words, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, make worlds. Our civil conversations with Richard Mouw, Elizabeth Alexander, Frances Kissling, and others coming up, including Terry Tempest Williams and Vincent Harding, are not just about talking. They’re about mining fresh vocabulary, lived virtues, and lessons learned where ideals have met hard reality. If you have ideas for a better title/headline/umbrella term for what we’re doing — with you as partners, and in public service — we’d like to hear it.

And, last week, we put one of our favorite shows back on the air, John Polkinghorne on quarks and creation. In moments like these, I do love the scope of what we can and must explore while tracing what it means to be human and how we want to live. That inquiry, taken seriously, can both help us shape lives of meaning in space and time and, mercifully, experience our lives as larger than the news cycle. They can help us place ourselves and our confusions in cosmic perspective.

So with the events of the past month still fresh in my mind, I’m listening to insights of John Polkinghorne — a conversation I had five years ago — in a whole new way. I’m remembering that science, too, can help us cultivate hope and a new imagination about human and social change moving forward. He offers this, for example:

“There’s a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven’t seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you’re too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you’re too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It’s these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.”

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is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, President Obama awarded her the National Humanities medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” In 2013, she created an independent, non-profit enterprise designed to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and amplify the unusual social impact of this content.

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