J.S. Mill on Conversation

Truth gains even more by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think… However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. (pgs. 40-41)

Amongst leaning towers of pizza boxes and well-marked notebooks, our reading group discussed John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty this past Tuesday evening. While there are a million plus one different ways to dissect, take up, and apply this work to the present, and swelling ranks of those who have taken up the task, I’d like to select a single gem to reflect upon. That rock is Mill’s perspective on discourse, specifically his idea that it is vitally necessary that we expose ourselves to diverse viewpoints and allow vigorous conversation– especially when it comes to our near and dear “higher things.”

While many would happily claim the label “tolerant,” it seems that fewer would invite a someone from very different religion, or a different political party (God forbid), over for dinner and then proceed to have a genuine discussion about religion and/or politics.

But I think this is exactly what needs to happen.

It is easy (not to mention comical) to bash Washington for polarizing our country, and though I’d admit that they have been doing nothing to help, it is our government after all. More importantly, it is our state, our city, our neighborhood, and our family. Mill has something to say about the stakes:

But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.

We (myself always included) shrink back from or “don’t have time for” (that favorite phrase of the modern American), engaging with those who come from different walks of life than us. In fact, I would argue that we currently suffer from a gross misunderstanding of the virtue of diversity. The only reason I can think of that diversity is currently measured by something as merely visual and uncontrollable such skin color, sex, or nationality is that these external facts can often coincide with true diversity. That is, the precious difference of perspective that we each hold as steward given a singular set of gifts, experiences, talents, and time.

The energetic beauty of diversity is in the unique irreproducibility of our unfolding stories. Believe me–this beauty, as all beauty, is mightily powerful. Call to mind those people who have changed your life for the better. There is no doubt that your souls crossed paths while traveling very different paths, but their healthy influence upon you was built conversation by conversation and shared experience by shared experience. I’d be willing to bet that over time, each of you wore down the other’s rough edges and perhaps even refined one another. What a treasure to have another mind for consultation in life’s episodes. What a strength to have another body to shoulder life’s burdens. What a joy to have another heart to encourage and rouse your feet toward new adventures!

I wonder what would happen if we looked at every fresh conversation this way. As my favorite author reminds, we bump elbows and share study spaces with beings who have been given the power to influence us for the better. Or even, as Fr. Greg Boyle movingly reminded us on Tuesday night, to “return us to ourselves.” This is the great possibility, and stagnant isolation is the the great enemy.

All I know is that I hope to be the kind of woman who greets her fellow sojourners like the potential friends that they are, always in the memory that my mouth, eyes, and ears are only outward symbols of the heart I carry within.

Parting quote:

“He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

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You’ll Be In My Heart

There is no stress, no anxiety, just this feeling of fullness. Perhaps that’s when you know you did something right.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

-Winston Churchill

Early yesterday morning, we had to kiss the Mississippi ground goodbye and embark on our 14-hr road trip back to good old Omaha.  I’d been dreading my return to the real world – throngs of emails, midterm grades, tedious assignments, the general organization required for living –  but I wakened today in my own bed with this prevailing sense of peace.  Instead of hurriedly checking my phone, I silently gazed out my window at early Autumn’s display of green and gold. There is no stress, no anxiety, just this feeling of fullness. Perhaps that’s when you know you did something right.

The pleasant aftermath of my service trip has reminded me of three important lessons:

1. Don’t worry about tomorrow.

It’s actually kind of embarrassing to think about how many times we have heard this, and still we continue to fritter away our time-allotment worrying and planning and stressing and talking about stressing and complaining about worrying… It takes a dramatic change of routine to break out of that vicious cycle. I attribute this newfound sense of peace in the present to the leaving behind of our cellphones for the entire week during our service trip. Hopefully you’ve heard it before, but just in case I will emphasize it again – life is much fuller when we don’t attempt to fill it with meaningless distractions. That week we did something different and uncomfortable, because we trusted that it would toughen us up for the better. We were reckless youth, but we were reckless with our kindness, openness, and joy, gambling that our time would be well spent in the service of others. We rebelled against the norm by staying up into the early hours of the morning – reflecting on our service, playing games, and baking cakes. We didn’t worry about what the next day had in store, because we knew we had more than enough in front of us, right then and there.

2. Reading will shape you into a more empathetic, understanding, and insightful being.

Oh, how I wish I could somehow fully convince the sweet kiddos that I tutored and hung out with this past week to take that truth to heart. As time goes on, I’ve witnessed more and more the incredibly forceful effect that good (also bad) books have on lives. I mean, how great is it that you can get an insight into someone’s head and have a shared experience, without ever having met them? Whether we like it or not, new understandings impact us. Literature give us a clue to the thought well thought, the word well said, and the deed well done. It is then up to us to make those noble thoughts, words, and actions our own; we must edify our lives into heroic poetry. I wish I could tell the kids that spending a summer day reading in a tree, and then consequently not being able to help but go out and hunt for the excitement you just got a glimpse of, is ten times more thrilling at the end of the day than curbing boredom by watching show after show on TV or the computer. Everything in moderation, of course, but I noticed a severe lack of enthusiasm for reading amongst the teachers and students, which I would dearly like to remedy. My suggestion? Read a good book. Think about that book, then talk about that book, then write about that book. I promise, you won’t be able to stop, and your life will be all the better for it.

3. Humble yourself.

There is an unparalleled power and beauty in the rawness of the human soul.

We nine of the “Calhoun Clique” have something real neat. We left our phones and our façades at home. We have a shared week-long experience that no one else will ever be able to replicate or to understand. And I tell myself, hold onto that feeling. But the truth is, I’ve felt like this before, and it put down roots. This past week gave birth to a peace that significantly deepened and heartened the stately tree of serenity that was already alive in my soul. It brought a renewed clarity to my life, improving upon the particular perspectives I had previously held and also forging new ones. Teaching ourselves to search out the beauty in the people and places we run across is a lifelong task, but I do know that we all grew by leaps and bounds in that area during this past week. I look back and think, how did I not know the beauty in the innocence and simplicity of waking up next to my new pals each new day? It is in the gift of a sleepy “good morning” to the occupant of the neighboring air mattress, while handing them that much-needed cup of black coffee. How did I not know the beauty in the wildly distracted student who could never sit still? It is in the gift of her endearing trust in me, as I later learn she is a foster child, yearning for care and comfort. How did I not know the beauty in nine wearied voices singing in unison on the last leg of our trip, just so that we may give each other one last precious, enduring memory? It is in the gift of the relationships that only open, exposed human souls can give one another. We left our comfort-zone to become humbled by each other, and in return we found uplifting peace.

The task now before us is to become a channel of peace for others.