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Experiment in Listening

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s no accident that I gave one of my sons the middle name of Emerson.

The feedback I got from the experiment I tried on the first Sunday – a new kind of meditation, suited for Ethical Culture, that involves talking and listening to another person – was overwhelmingly positive, and I’ll likely be trying that again.  I loved hearing what people found valuable in the interchange. It was different for different people.

What would it mean if we took more time in our lives to really listen to another person? Took some time to deliberately and mindfully practice listening to another, seeing the person in the “now” as we listen, not through a lens of all that we know of the person from the past, not through a lens of what we expect that person to say or do?

And what would it mean if we had others take the time to really listen to us?  Took some time to deliberately and mindfully practice listening to us, seeing us as the person we are in the “now,” not who we’ve been or what they’ve come to expect us to say or do?

For me, this gets to the basic Ethical Culture commitment of attributing human worth to every person we meet — those we know well, those we meet for the first time, those we have never met but have expectations of, been primed by preconceptions (culture? media? experience with others “like” them?).

Some of you who were there said that the question was particularly intriguing.  ”What is something that excites you?”  I chose it for exactly the same reason some of you said you liked it: it’s not something we normally ask ourselves, but it is a question that helps us see what’s really important to us, where we’d like to spend more of our time.

Those of you who weren’t there might try focusing on that for a minute or two, for some self-connection, and then maybe asking a friend if they’d be willing to listen to you for a minute or two — then ask them the same question.

And so I’ll be trying the Ethical Culture “meditation” practice again.  I’d recommend taking the risk of talking to different people each time we try this together — getting to practice talking about something important to you, and listening to what’s important to another person — with a variety of people.  If you find yourself bored or bothered connecting like this with a particular person (I am guessing this is more likely in our imaginations than reality), remember that it’s only a couple of minutes — worth the risk, I think, of even talking to someone you might normally avoid.  Most likely, you’ll be surprised!

And it’s an experiment. If it doesn’t work for a whole lot of people, we can drop it.  If it doesn’t work for you, I invite you to look around and see whether it’s worth letting it work for a whole lot of others, worth your discomfort for a few minutes because it does bring something to all those others.  And if it does work for you — I hope you’ll really enjoy it!

Inherent Worth of Abusers?

I am often asked how I can have faith in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. If someone abuses you or others repeatedly, seriously, are they still persons of worth?

Here’s my quick summary of conclusions I’ve come to, over many years of thinking about these questions.

Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of someone does not mean that anger is somehow “wrong,” or that all actions are equally “right.”

Belief in worth and dignity does not mean that you “have to” forgive in the absence of changed behavior. You may, at some point, decide to give up anger and even hatred for the sake of your own emotional health, even in the absence of changed behavior — but I think that’s different from forgiveness, which comes only when there’s some genuine understanding and a choice to change and often, also, the choice to make proportional amends, on the part of the person whose actions you found hurtful.

Even when someone’s behavior is hurtful to another, the belief in inherent worth and dignity even in that person is what makes me decide not to treat the person out of vengeance but only to stop the behavior and help establish consequences in proportion to and appropriate to the wrong. Thus, the person can be reported to authorities, such that our legal system’s consequences would apply — but responding in kind with abuse or torture would be something I’d avoid — for my own sake and for the sake of building a more humane culture.

Belief in worth and dignity of others is far more about how I will behave than it is about what quality exists in the other. Even those we call “abusers” — people whose habitual actions hurt others — are human beings, and if we treat them as subhuman, it’s my belief that diminishes us more than it punishes them. But giving consequences to others for hurtful behavior, and establishing boundaries that protect ourselves and others, is not the same as treating someone as subhuman.


Continue reading “Inherent Worth of Abusers?” »

Book Recommendation

A suggestion for summer reading:  The Anatomy of Peace from the Arbinger Institute.  I found it quite engrossing — a slightly different way to get to the “how-to” of “bringing out the best in others” — by seeing the individual worth or “personhood” of everyone, and reacting out of a “heart at peace” rather than a “heart at war.”  I’ve particularly enjoyed hearing the audio version of the book, though found it a bit difficult to visualize some charts that were described, so also have a copy of the dtb (”dead tree book”).

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

Steps in Seeking Forgiveness

This post has been moved: Steps in Seeking Forgiveness

Ten Basics of Ethical Communication

Moved: Ten Basics of Ethical Communication

    Empathy in the White House

    On January 4, I spoke about empathy and its role in ethical living.  The link below will take you to a Google Video on empathy — it’s definitely a “rough, rough cut” as the producer has begun by putting together about 30 clips of Obama talking about empathy.

    Have we ever had a leader, I wonder, who understands so much about empathy — not “I feel your pain” but “I can try to connect with you because we are both human beings”?

    What do you think?  How might empathy in the White House make a difference in the ethics of our country, of the world?