Building a Space for the COURAGEOUS

Greetings. There is so much gold buried in the following quote by the writer, and one of my favorite modern-day philosophers, Brené Brown. However, for this blog post, I want to focus on the first two clauses. My next blog post will focus on the final clause around the importance of practicing our values. Enjoy.

“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice your values rather than simply professing them.”

- Brené Brown

I went to a boarding school where we had sit-down dinners five days a week. The boys (and men) would put on a nice pair of pants with a jacket and tie, while the girls (and women) typically wore “modest” skirts and dresses. During those dinners lessons of manners were reinforced: good posture, napkin on your lap, fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right, and never speak with your mouth full. We worked to build community as our seating plans were randomly shuffled each week, ensuring that we got to meet, and hopefully have interactions with, as many different students as possible over the course of the year. We also learned, implicitly and explicitly, never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table or in other venues of polite company. As I look back on those dinners, I can be grateful for the reinforcement of manners and the quest for a kinder community. However, I can’t help but feel that those teachers, as well as our parents, grandparents, and so many other people we valued and trusted planted seeds of blissful ignorance. These seeds have led to trees of intolerance, a lack of ability and desire to understand others’ points of view and political and spiritual segregation that leaves us isolated from one another. This is an isolation that can lead to anger, loneliness, depression, mistrust, anxiety, and hate.

Across the history of humanity, people have been willing to fight and die for political and religious beliefs; therefore we must assume that for many of us, these identities (at the core, both of which are choices) are an essential piece of who we are. And not being able to talk respectfully about those issues, denies us the ability to be fully and authentically ourselves, while creating a deeper crater in our ability to connect. Making things worse, that old maxim “don’t talk about politics and religion,” has extended to race, class, gender, sex and almost any significant issue or topic that makes us remotely uncomfortable. It seems that many people believe that if we cease to talk about “it,” then “it” will cease to exist as an issue. This neglects the fact that these issues are core to our individual humanness. We must recognize that the real problems lie in our lack of understanding and our failure to give general reverence to the fact that these issues are core to the individual humanness of others.

Though by no means a cure-all, we suggest the term COURAGEOUS, as a way into moving towards a “greater humanity.” COURAGEOUS, as we use it at the Deep Wells Group, is an acronym for Conversations On Understanding Racial And Gendered Experiences and Other Uncomfortable Subjects.

Talking sports, though fun and sometimes even scarily contentious, is not COURAGEOUS. Talking about the weather, or cat videos, or about how funny an episode of our favorite sitcom was isn’t COURAGEOUS. Spouting inanities about your least favorite government official from behind the computer screen, in a chat room, or in the echo-chamber that is becoming most of our lives isn’t COURAGEOUS either. Our full definition of COURAGEOUS is partaking actively in a thoughtful exchange of ideas, where understanding the experience of others is central to the outcome despite the uncomfortable nature of the subject matter.

So yes, I believe that we must face issues of discomfort if we are to authentically develop into the people we can become. And the beautiful thing about uncomfortableness is that the more capacity we develop to stand in those “tough” moments, the more comfortable we become. And while those moments can initially feel unbearable, there are tools, skills, and behaviors that must be identified, developed, sharpened, and refined in order to be successful in this worthy endeavor: curiosity, critical listening, empathy, grace, and humility are a few. Remember, these conversations are not a game to be won, and we should not enter them with the sole hope of converting anyone to our team. We should enter them with a more compassionate hope of better understanding from both sides. It is easy to write off the people who we disagree with as crazy, lost, "unwoken," evil, or just plain wrong. However it takes courage and a true sense of integrity to hear the “other” side fully, recognize our sameness, and maybe even see some of the potential glitches in our own thinking and belief systems. This is not an easy endeavor, but there are few skills more critical for the prosperity of the human race.

So instead of doing what is easy and fast, maybe we should learn to do what is right. Instead of seeking comfort, maybe we should focus on developing the courage to stand in, and grow from, our discomfort. I wonder where our world would be if our schools, our parents, and other leaders helped us develop the skills of civil discourse rather than deliberate avoidance. Would we be mired in senseless partisan warfare or would we be better prepared to see the nuance in our politics and our politicians? Could it allow us to understand and embrace the oneness in our religious beliefs rather than focusing on the important, though relatively small, divergences in the manner we choose to celebrate and embrace “our” God? Would we be better families, a better country, a better world, if we modeled this behavior while helping our children develop the necessary tools at a young age to want to, and be able to engage in, truly COURAGEOUS experiences?

Let us imagine, and then work to create, that world. A world where we all have the desire and the capacity to engage in uncomfortable, but meaningful conversations. Conversations that aren’t about the zero-sum game of being RIGHT or WRONG, but those with the end result being a greater understanding of, and a more authentic connection with, the people along this genuinely remarkable journey with us. It is not easy; it is not fast; however it is right, it is courageous, and it just may be the thing to save all of us.

A COURAGEOUS Dinner Party in Haverford, PA. Fall, 2018

I challenge educators, parents, politicians, and other leaders to work to create spaces where children and adults can better connect through the power of conversations. In a couple of weeks we are going to host another COURAGEOUS Dinner Party, a potluck meal where we invite people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs to break bread and discuss different “uncomfortable” topics each time. We have ground rules, willing participants, and it works well.

What can you do?

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