A week ago I finished leading a 6-day intensive training for people who are sharing NVC in the world. One morning I brought to the group my perspective and passion about using NVC to support creating change in the world. In particular, I shared the essential points I wrote about on this blog in a 9-part mini-series earlier this year.
As luck would have it, I was soon invited to practice what I preach – to make myself available to dialogue even when I feel passionately about something. The occasion: a comment/question from one woman in the group about why we would even want to seek change rather than seeing the world as perfect already.
I imagine that some of the people who are reading this would resonate with this comment, and others would resonate with the wave of anguish that arose in me as I heard it and thought of the billions of people on this planet whose plight is such that I can barely understand how they get through one day of their lives, or of the many thousands of children who die daily of preventable food-related causes.
Over the course of this conversation I felt many waves of that anguish, and the related fear about having so many people do nothing to alleviate this suffering and transform the conditions that I believe create it. Each time I experienced such a wave I took an inner breath and just let the wave pass, so I could be present for the dialogue, so that the connection could continue. I also noted the judgment that arose, and my joy at seeing that it didn’t stop me, as judgments had in the past, before I immersed myself in the practice of NVC. The thought kept coming up – “This kind of belief can only emerge from a place of privilege.” – And I kept putting it aside and showing up for the dialogue.
Not only was this tough emotionally because of the intensity. It was also tough because for that whole time I was letting go of specific pieces of teaching that I was hoping to share with the people in the room. I was able to do that, in part, because I was confident that we were right in the thick of a key piece of what I wanted to teach and want all of us all to learn: how to maintain connection, respect, and engagement in the face of intense and potentially irreconcilable differences.
And so I focused on understanding her, which became easier the more I did it. I was able to see that underneath her particular belief about the world she was speaking for values I also have. Primary among them is acceptance of what is, and celebration of and trust in life. The gap was closing already just from understanding her.
And yet dialogue goes both ways; it’s not only about listening. Full dialogue is ultimately an invitation for both parties to hear each other. And so I asked for the group’s support in finding what was under the judgment. I was particularly moved by the participation of the very woman I was judging. With everyone’s help I found a way to open my heart wider, and to have the full passion of what I wanted without the experience of separation and distance that the judgment generates.
What was important to me at bottom is that I am longing for companionship in a kind of courage that I treasure: the willingness to look at what is happening with openness to being touched, affected, moved, and possibly changed in the process. I am also longing for care in action, including the willingness to pay a personal cost and to give up comfort and convenience in standing up for the things we care about.
I was also able to see the difference between accepting what is and believing that everything is perfect. The difference, as I see it now after that conversation, is that accepting what is does not imply liking what is, or evaluating what is in any particular way. It’s simply a recognition that what is happening just is. It’s neither OK nor not OK, it just is. Saying that the world is perfect as it is, on the other hand, evaluates the world, and finds it “good” in some way. Meeting Rumi in the field that’s beyond “thoughts of right and wrongdoing” means letting go of thoughts of right doing, or of perfection, in addition to letting go of thoughts of wrongdoing. Understanding this increases my ability to live in the paradox of accepting what is at the same time of wanting things to be different.
I was able to communicate all of this to the woman who had initially challenged me about creating change in the world, and I trust completely that she was able to hear me. Did we reach an agreement? No. Am I disappointed about that? Not at all. Although I am, still, quite habituated to seeing agreement as a sweet accomplishment, and although disagreement continues to frighten me at times, I am more and more aware that disagreements, even major differences, are here to stay. History is too full of people killing each other because of not tolerating disagreements and differences. How can we, instead, live with disagreements without trying to make them go away? I want to continue to learn, with others, about finding enough curiosity and openness so that even when the going is tough we can hold jointly the gaps between us, because we remember, respect, and love our common humanity.