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Uncomfortable Essay #8: Grappling with "the Truth"

This is the only Uncomfortable Essay to be published on a specific day: Christmas Day, December 25, 2008. If there is any other day in our calendar where there are as many, and as intense, interpretations of the real meaning of the day or the “Truth” therein, I’d be surprised. While there may seem to be a majority opinion on what Christmas is supposed to mean, and while there might be many areas of consensus about the general meaning of Christmas in our society, “Truth” is very much in the mind of the beholder. “Truth” is as elusive as it is portrayed to be certain.

So, how is “the Truth” of Christmas defined? “Let me count the ways”. Even the assorted Christian Bible study groups I see from time to time at my coffee shop, all having earnest conversations about the meaning of this or that text, may not be able to agree with each other on the fine points of interpretation about the day.

Occasionally I listen to a popular “light rock” radio station that bills itself as the most popular commercial station in this metropolitan area, and which goes to a 100% Christmas music format beginning even before Thanksgiving. Today, Christmas Day, as they’ve been saying all month, will be “commercial free”. Of course, today follows a full month of commercial laden programming. Many of the Christmas songs are in themselves commercials to spend money on Christmas presents. The week prior to Christmas, one of the big advertisers is a religious denomination, marketing its schools through its local head. And as everyone knows, the biggest single commercial block of the entire year is what is called “Christmas Shopping”; and Christmas time is a time relied on by churches for major additional money contributions.

So, what is “the Truth” of Christmas? It depends. And, of course, the issue of “truth” is much broader than simply considering the single issue, Christmas.

This fall I offered to a local organization a recently produced film questioning the official story about one of our national tragedies. I sent the film for preview to the local President. I thought it would be a good film to view and discuss at a membership meeting. In addition, I could supply the person who made the film, a college teacher, to engage in dialogue or even debate with our group.

A couple of weeks later the DVD came back with an attached post-it note. “Dick – I believe that showing this DVD to our members would be counter productive to my efforts to grow [the organization], and I believe that you realize that based on the dialog you’ve had with several of our [fellow] members.” (There had been an interchange between members, but by no means could it be considered a “dialog”.)

Subsequent I was at a showing of the film in a context similar to the local group just mentioned. It was a rich, respectful evening. People came with an open mind, offered their opinions and listened to other points of view. A month or so later, I heard a similar report about another showing of the film.

Several years earlier I had lobbied the leader of a well known peace group to show a recently released documentary film called “Peace One Day”, a documentary about a huge accomplishment by a single young Englishman, who convinced the United Nations General Assembly to adopt September 21 each year as the International Day of Peace. http://www.peaceoneday.org. It was a truly huge accomplishment. After a while, the terse response came back from the peacemaker about the film: not interested. The film was not hard-edged enough against war, too soft. So the film went un-shown, at least in her group.

I wasn’t surprised at the first leader response, since he spoke a likely truth about his other members: they would likely be very angry to have any of their own biases questioned in the least. They believed what they believed, and weren’t to be bothered with alternative interpretations.

I was surprised at the response of the Peace leader rejection of the Peace film some years earlier. After all, what I proposed was totally in synch with the mission of her group.
Succinctly, our movement is subject to the same kinds of communication problems as any other. We can get mired in the certainty of our “truth”, whatever it is.

This past October one of my ideological allies wrote that we collectively seem unwilling to engage in debate, and that the public interest in the presidential candidate debates then occurring was proof positive that the public has a hunger for open and substantive face-to-face discussions of issues. My correspondent had noted a posting of mine where I recalled reviewing a diary of a 1927 Debate tour of 31 Midwest and west coast colleges and universities. The tour pitted three young Englishmen against local debaters at each campus. The debates, as reported by one of the Englishmen in his most interesting diary, attracted large crowds, and enthusiastic responses at every campus.

It is an unfortunate consequence of today’s lifestyle, with its easy anonymity and sophisticated communications networking, that groups of individuals can band together and communicate solely with people who share their particular passion, their particular version of the “truth”. Other points of view can be disappeared, though that doesn’t mean that those alternate points of view cease to exist. Sooner or later the alternate truths bubble to the surface, with consequences.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to view a “truth”. And I think the Peace and Justice movement would be very well served to seek out and encourage all manner of discussion and debate about all of the issues about which we hold strong opinions. It would seem worthwhile to have true interaction with others of differing point of view. If we took more of this kind of risk, it would seem to me, the odds would seem better for us to actually resolve issues, rather than to stay in opposing “armed camps” permanently stale-mated, or doomed to “win-lose” relationships.

I have long been taken with a quotation I saw in Joseph Jaworsky’s book, “Synchronicity, the Inner Path of Leadership” (1996). Preceding the chapter on “Dialogue: The Power of Collective Thinking”, Jaworsky included the following quote from David Bohms “On Dialogue”. It speaks to this business of talking with, rather than talking to or at others:

“From time to time, (the) tribe (gathered) in a circle.
They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate.
There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.”

Even within our own settings, within the motley crews which are our own “tribes” (family, neighborhood, etc) this business of just talking and talking and talking can be a very good thing….

PS: Ironically, during this 2008 Christmas Day, two individuals e-mailed me with varying accounts of the famous Christmas Day Truce in the trenches of WWI in Europe. If parties intent on physically killing each other could call a truce for one day, why shouldn’t we be willing to listen respectfully to other points of view – or at least make such an overture? Some references on the Christmas Day Truce are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9coPzDx6tA&feature=related

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 25, 2008 5:09 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Uncomfortable Essay #7: "Overcoming the Fear of Success".

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