Words, Processing

A quote that sums up my e-silence of late, from one of the most horribly awesome movies of all time, Troll 2 (which is neither a sequel to Troll, nor does it even have trolls in it):

“We need time for some things to happen.”

It’s this kind of Absolute (Troll) Truth that makes your eyes and soul weepy.

And, indeed, for the last few weeks, I’ve needed some time for things to happen. Namely, I found myself back in my hometown of Laconia doing some house-painting with my gracious father-in-law, as I continue the hunt for a job. During the time I wasn’t breathing noxious fumes or getting spackle dust in my eyes, I was busy preparing for 2 big projects: 1. The first annual State of Formation executive committee meeting (Jan 23-24), and 2. a speech on the topic of “Wrath” for a casual, beer-drinking series called “Ockham‘s Kegger” sponsored by Christ Church in South Hamilton, MA (Jan 24, evening).

As you can see from the dates, both events ran right into each other, leaving me exhausted, pushed to my intellectual and idealistic limits, and ultimately, energized for the great work that can happen in 2011. It was the kick in the pants that I needed to show that even a smalltown kid who only just met his first Muslim can be an active agent of change for the better in our country. In light of last night’s State of the Union Address, Obama’s idea of “winning the future” is not as abstract as you might think. Just this weekend I went from lazy dreamer to activist, and all I did was show up.

So, over the next week, expect formalized thoughts and reflections on both of these events, but for now, here’s just a small thing that probably won’t have a space to get mentioned in detail:

After my speech on “wrath,” I had an incredibly fruitful and lively Q&A session with the audience. Though the room was frigid, and the numbers started dwindling, a hearty portion put on their hats and gloves and resigned to stay at the table. Quite a compliment. At one point, an inquisitor told me he “disagreed vehemently” with a statement I made about avoiding emotionally-charged language when entering into a dialogue with someone who disagrees with you. The example phrase was “human life starts at conception,” but really could’ve been any number of over-politicized rhetorical language.

In my original remarks, I called for “a new vocabulary” regarding these typically divisive conversations. Every person brings a unique history and narrative to the discussion, and certain phrases have been used so much that they’ve come to be representative of one particular worldview. To use this kind of overused language, then, is to sabotage the discussion before it really begins. It doesn’t just draw a line in the sand, it builds a brick wall and turns on deafening sirens.

When this response was challenged, the person correctly said that there are some things you have to be bold about, and that “watering down” the language would only neuter us. Further, the person asked, “What if MLK, Jr. had gone soft on his activism?”

I was so glad to hear this, as I totally understand where this reaction comes from. For a long time, I did water down my rhetoric and opinions out of a desire to be accepted by every audience. However, the choice is not just either being a patsy or being a hothead. In fact, MLK, Jr. modeled “a new vocabulary” beautifully by always reaching common ground with his detractors first, and from there, boldly calling out the heinous errors of thinking in his opponent. Both he and his multi-faith inspirations like Ghandi and Abraham Joshua Heschel practiced non-violence as a way to communicate with hearts that had become hardened due to the dusty, cliched rhetoric of the day.

So: a new vocab is not a cop-out; it’s the only way we can talk to people that are not “like us.” I do not know if I changed my inquisitor’s mind, but he stayed at the table, and I know he taught me a thing or two about engagement by pushing through the cold.


About bp

I'm writing a book. It's called, Wake, Sleeper. My writing revolves around this idea of art: attempts to recover what is lost.
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5 Responses to Words, Processing

  1. Katelyn says:

    We wish we could have been there Bryan! I look forward to picking your brain more this weekend and hearing more. In the mean time, thanks for the post!

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  3. Becky Miller says:

    I like the idea of a new vocabulary. What’s your example of a new vocab way to approach the beginning of human rights?

  4. bp says:

    Thanks, Becky! And, I think a good starting point is just the phrase you mention: “human rights.” In many ways, that phrase has been less willing to sell itself to one “side” or the other, and therefore makes it, I dunno, sort of ‘bipartisan’ from the outset. (For example, I think of your use of it from a pro-life activism standpoint, and also how the Human Rights Campaign uses it towards gender equality). And even more important–and maybe this is obvious or cheesy–is that word “human.” I cannot claim to be the author of a new vocabulary (as much as I wish I could), but I can make human relationship my primary concern when entering any kind of typically divisive forum. A silly (but true) example could be that I know that we both have a love of stroopwafels, and though it’s sort of a mundane detail, it makes me feel comfortable enough to talk about big things with an apparent stranger (not saying we’re debating anything, but you know what I mean).

    All in all, once you see your opposition’s humanity, they become less of an opposition, and more of an intelligent, 3-D being through which you can test and strengthen your greatest passions.

    Does that help? Hope so! Thanks for starting this exciting conversation!

  5. Pingback: The Revolving Door of Dialogue | wake, sleeper

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