Based on my albeit short career in climate activism, I believe too many of us are struggling with massive, relentless stress that takes a toll on our relationships with each other, the quality of our work, and inevitably, and on our own body-minds. We want change but our methodology is missing the mark. We preach to the choir in deadly, PowerPoint, fact-filled meetings, replete with pressure to sign away our free time to various on-going actions. Given this is South Florida, the list is long. When we keep pounding away with the facts, the values, our values, the humanity of our words and actions, remain off the table. We must replace finger wagging with a vision of life so compelling, people will want to create it. We need, as Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement insists, new stories to inspire and model change, and the ability to tell them well. Moreover, we need Marketing 101, because those who are fighting just as hard for business as usual are employing it more effectively. See George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant).
Last week, a climate activist buddy and I both found ourselves stricken with an upper bronchial infection that is making the rounds and rendered speechless with laryngitis, ah the irony. When we found our voices again, we had a chat about the work we do and its impact on our health and that of those in our circle. We are on the same wavelength that new approaches are sorely needed, a lightness of being. I think of Wendell Berry’s great quote: Be joyful, although you have considered the facts. She is, as are others, often able to ‘push through’ fatigue and illness, even to the point of offering comment on the Regional Climate Action Plan of 2009, at last on the West Palm Beach commissioners’ agenda. The good news and kudos to my colleagues: RCAP was signed. But I can’t help wondering why it took this long, and why only three municipalities in Palm Beach County have signed it so far.
When I feel unwell I tend to want to tough it out, but when I woke up one morning unable to so much as whisper, it seems a good time to save my vocal chords, hold my peace, and see what might happen. Teaching my yoga classes was impossible, but I did some gentle, restorative yoga at home. And thanks to my mindfulness meditation practice, I noticed how it felt to be without a voice. I allowed myself to enquire, become curious about whether this lack had anything to teach me. Curiosity, says Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödrön, is “A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life … whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet.”
While I was sans voice, I happened to be reading a great book … about talking! Living Room Revolution:A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good by Cecile Andrews is both a convincing case for the need for civil discourse and a manual for the same. It argues that nothing less than our democracy depends on our reclaiming of the lost art of conversation, an exchange of equals in a respectful, convivial atmosphere, pub, salon or living room. Public spaces where people could gather spawned revolutions in the past, including that of our nation. Today, many of us rely on other means, e.g. email, texting and social media, to stay in touch, usually with our friends, real or virtual. Texting can be great for refining a plan as you go, a lesson we can learn from the young. But these techniques don’t help us widen our circles of association or get practice talking with people with whom we might not agree on everything. And that does not promote the common good.
Andrews’ formula is deceptively simple: a study circle that gathers “a small group of people talking about three questions, the first being about personal experience, the second about cultural forces that defeat your goals, and the third about actions you can take to accomplish your goals.” Other suggestions: Enlist commitments to meet weekly for eight weeks. Get consensus about what makes a good conversation. Use a timer to limit each speaker to 3 minutes. Done right, these study circles encourage every participant to become a storyteller and possibly a change maker. I love these three beginning questions:
1. When in your life have you experienced supportive community and a sense of belonging?
2. What forces in society make it difficult for you to have community?
3. What short-term and long-term actions can you take to introduce more community into your life?
My spouse is naturally gregarious, always the one who will strike up a conversation with a seat mate at the theater or on public transportation while my head is buried in a program or book, or worse, checking my smart phone. But I’m determined to break these habits. So at last Sunday’s Farmers Market, while he was getting us coffee, I sat down at a picnic table next to a someone I didn’t know. Because we smiled at each other, I took the plunge and asked his opinion about the various breakfast vendors, and he was delighted to make some recommendations. That opening was enough to spark a conversation of about 30 minutes, as my spouse arrived with the coffee and the two men quickly bonded as fellow New Yorkers from different boroughs. By the time we had covered some family and work history — he was a subway driver for the #7 line — I realized that we were on the same page about some hot topics: the disappearance of the middle class and the sorry state of education, with some ideas on how to address both. When was the last time that happened to you? As we shook hands, exchanged names, and went our separate ways, I felt the afterglow of having made a human connection at what has become another shopping opportunity, albeit with better vegetables and sometimes decent live music. Much as I enjoy social media, it doesn’t do it for me. The art of conversation — let’s bring it back.