Can we all just agree that our current reality is messed up? I avoid the news and I try not to freak out about all the bad stuff going down around the world. I don’t have control over very much out there and I am often unsure of where to put my energies to make things better.
I have found that many ‘ordinary’ folk (myself included) feel ill-equipped to formulate an opinion on issues of public concern, and as a result, disengage from even discussing them in a critical way. The spaces to do so are rare, and those that exist can be intimidating. Not to mention that the issues we are facing as a society are incredibly complex. Instead, we borrow our views from the media and leave it to the ‘experts’ to figure things out and make decisions that ultimately affect us all.
How can this state of affairs not be paralyzing and disempowering? How can we feel that we have the capacity, the motivation, and the possibility to act? How can we move from a sense of disempowerment to a sense that we can engage with and change the world? And what exactly can I make better? I am not alone in this questioning, nor is this new. A case can be made that every generation freaks out about its current reality. And every generation has people that push things forward to make the world better.
I have long had an interest in understanding this ‘moment’: How a person goes from seeing their place in the world as bleak and unchangeable to recognizing that we each have a certain amount of power and agency to affect change. When I reflect on this ‘moment’ in my own life — because I do think I can effect change, even if I feel a little wobbly at times — I know that it was not a single idea, author, social movement, or even special mentor that shaped my current thinking, it was the constant act of being in conversation with others.
I am closing in on two decades worth of engaging in events called dialogues or workshops or trainings or retreats or meetings or public consultations. Essentially, conversations. For myself — and I believe for many others too — the very act of engaging in intentional conversation provides an experience where we not only learn something factual or theoretical about the subject matter discussed, we are also put in a position where we have to try and figure out:
- how to listen attentively
- how to ask a question
- how to learn with others
- how to state an opinion
- how to challenge an opinion
- how to form a belief
- how to challenge a belief
- how to name a vision
- how to name what we value
- how to suspend judgment
- how to figure out what’s at stake
- how to imagine what is possible
- how to share without oversharing
- how to stay silent
- how to sit in silence with others
- how to summon the courage to share a half-formed thought out loud
- how to trust that what we have to say is worth saying
Again and again, I have witnessed conversations amble from “Hey, this is an interesting issue!” to “What can be done about this issue?” or “How can we, as a society, handle this better?” back to “What can I change in my own thinking and actions?” to “What will I do?” A marked transition from the passive to the active. Engaging in intentional conversations teaches us the very skills we need to meaningfully participate and effect change in a democratic society. It provides an experience for us to identify the kind of world, country, community, neighbourhood, and family we want to belong to, and collectively imagine the paths, pinpoint the obstacles, and figure out what we can try, test and experiment to achieve this ideal.
I will continue hosting and participating in intentional conversations. I’m beginning to think that this is my life’s work. These spaces provide not only an opportunity for learning, but also the possibility to acquire a ‘habit’ of conversing about tough issues together, and ultimately an impetus to name the world we want and work towards achieving it.
This post is loosely adapted from a section in the Introduction to my Master’s thesis: Hosting humanizing practices in times of complexity: Lessons to be learned from Paulo Freire