Identity and Conversation

Let’s see now. L G B….T…Q?… I??  I.  I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few years about the alphabet of identities. If we haven’t been struggling to articulate our sexual identities we have been thrown into our even longer turmoil about “race,” with the muddled colors of White, Black, Colored, or into the ethnographic kaleidoscope of Euro-, Afro- African, Asian, all the way to Tiger Wood’s “Cabalinasian.”

I just worked my way through a long and somewhat jumbled account of Yale University’s controversy about offensive Halloween costumes, identity, and civility in the University’s Alumni Magazine. I was struck that the authors emphasized how the real underlying issue was how people could engage in respectful interchange and conversation out of the welter of their differing faces, bodies, historical experiences, and ways of communication.

The problem, they seemed to say, is this: How can we articulate our different identities in a way that leads to genuine conversation about the world we share?

As I engage in my quadrennial effort to minimize exposure to mass media during an American election campaign, I am struck even more by how our much-vaunted means of communication have failed us in this regard.

First, because of our low level of attention, they resort to the clumsiest categories to identify the actors in a story—Liberal and Conservative, Black and White, Gay and Straight, and so forth.

Second, because this “communication” is a one-way transmission of images and words, it cannot occur between and among real people in all their complexity within a particular group, community, or organization. Instead of eye-contact, body language, and immediate means for confirmation or correction, our media resort to polls and anecdotal interviews.

Even the fact-checkers are always a day late and a megabyte short. Without the civility of conversation the media end up tyrannizing over our perceptions, our understanding, and our behavior.

Along with many others I have been struggling to move through a statement of identity to participation in conversations about the world and the conflicts that permeate our effort to cooperate in finding the common good we need for a more abundant and sustainable life. While there aren’t twelve steps to this journey, I can point to a few that have appeared.

I begin with the affirmation that the struggle for “identity” needs to be seen as a struggle for recognition and confirmation. We don’t simply want to be recognized and have a label pinned on us. We want to be recognized in a way that confirms or at least speaks to our own self-understanding.

Now, our self-understanding is always somewhat confused and incomplete. Who we are is also who we will become as well as who we and our ancestors were. So even the search for our own identity requires that we engage in real exchange and conversation with others who are struggling with our identity as well as their own.

Thus, the struggle over our identity requires that we move to conversation, indeed, face-to-face conversation. The mass media engages in a constant and searing assault on our capacity for this conversation, even as people are naming every exchange of words a “conversation.” Is the Republican primary of Trump and Cruz a “conversation”? Clearly, it is not, but we need models of genuine conversation to correct this parody.

I have believed that circles of perhaps a dozen people constitute a core of genuine conversation from which springs the wider public dynamic where our struggle for identity, confirmation, and community finds its pivotal place.

In these circles there often arises a “holy moment” when a wisdom greater than that of any individual’s reshapes our understandings and emotions. It is in these moments that we can sense a revelation of who we are and who the other person is. It can be a revelation that transforms us.

And so, I have been involved over the years with others who put this process at the center of a worship practice we call Roundtable Worship. The conversation at this round table requires a covenant of mutual respect as well as rituals that help us remember the equal dignity of all.

Conversation is more than just a free for all of verbal expression. It is a listening more than a speaking, a speaking of the heart more than simply of the mind, a silence that provides a space for contemplation of a wider mystery.

In that conversation we can discover that the other person is far more a mystery than we thought. We can understand that we participate in the same mystery about ourselves, our ultimate destiny, and the nature of the world we share. Such a conversation cultivates a humility which is not self-abasement but respect before the mystery of the other person and of ourselves, of the world we share.

Tasting this mystery of identity and conversation helps me claim a center in a world that is mired in the chaos of egotism and narrow ambition. It is also an experience which the powers of this world seek to crush or to seduce in order to defend their own legitimacy.

The search for our identity requires conversation, just as every drama has a plot as well as a cast of characters. We used to call it the “Dramatis Personae,” which reminds me of the long history of the concept of a “person,” from the Persons of the Trinity to the person before the law and finally to the cult of personality in our own time.

Bubbling beneath the surface of our present turmoil you can see this deeper plot that presses for a new revelation and a new transformation. I

have begun to look for it more persistently and patiently. It is very fragile and evanescent, like the Spirit. But it is also the underlying source of genuine identity and relationship. Let me know what you are finding with this lens.

1 thought on “Identity and Conversation”

  1. Bill, I’m so grateful for the light you shed on this complex and timely topic. I just came across lines from Satish Kumar about being a stranger: when we accept that we don’t have to “belong” — be like others, within a group (especially a dominant group) — then we are free to be part of the world. Once he experienced that, he said, “There was a paradoxical release of the spirit. The world became mine when I was no longer holding on to it.” That release sounds like what you describe happening in the Roundtable process.

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