—Zora Neale Hurston
Next I asked, have you ever seen anything like this before? The answer was yes—once I understood that what I thought I was seeing was the world falling apart in front of my eyes. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of that, not only in the world at large (think Vietnam and all the assassinations of the 1960’s), but in the smaller worlds in which I’ve worked (the Lower East Side in NYC, Kentucky’s Appalachia, certain neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.), to say nothing of the micro-world of my own inner life.
Marcy: Parker, this has been one of the most challenging years in my memory, at home and abroad, a year with many more questions than answers. It’s been a year of real suffering for some, with people losing jobs and homes at a terrible pace. All of that has shaken me, and yet there is something focusing, maybe even liberating, in having been brought “down to ground” in our assumptions and habits, our appetites and aspirations. There seems to be an invitation here for some of us to contemplate new possibilities for our lives in renewed relationships and the deeper connections of community, to expand our ways of thinking about “the pursuit of happiness” and living a purposeful life.
On a more personal note, you have just turned 70—not yet a ripe old age, but one that allows a certain vantage point, as well as the right to pontificate, at least a little. What do you see as the important questions that we need to be asking ourselves right now?
Parker: Marcy, don’t you know that “Friends don’t let friends pontificate, even a little?“ I’m beyond shocked, but relieved to know that I’m not yet ”ripe!“ Still, you’ve asked a vital question, so I’ll share what I’ve been asking myself, given the ways this crisis has hit me. I’m not likely to lose my home or my job. But I’ve lost a fair chunk of my retirement savings, and am committed to financing college for a promising young person over the next four years.
My questions went something like this: What are you feeling about all this? The answer was fear and anger: fear for myself and the people and projects close to me, and anger at the fact that a few people have profited from the losses of the many. In hard times, I find it helpful to be honest about my emotions so I can “ride” them somewhere rather than let them pull me down.
That question helped me ask the next one: what did you learn during those times that might help you now? Well, what I learned had much to do with the ”new possibilities“ you named, Marcy, so I’m as certain as I can be that you’re on the right track there. But that raised another and harder question: what led me to forget what I learned between those times of crisis, taking me back to the old assumptions, habits, appetites and aspirations that you mentioned? And how can I avoid that kind of amnesia this time around?
That’s kind of an ironic question because at my age memory is one of the first things to go! But I’m sensing a deeper kind of knowing in old age—as ”unripe“ as I may be!—that might allow me to do some deeper learning this time. And I’m quite sure that this kind of knowing is not limited to oldsters. Isn’t that why we call some young people ”old souls?“
Marcy: Well, I think you’re short-changing yourself a bit. In the fifteen years we’ve worked together, I’ve seen you make a lot of decisions based on what you’ve learned about those “new possibilities”—but maybe you’ve forgotten all that! Still, I understand what you mean. We often return to the “default” position in our lives, no matter what we’ve learned. So we need each other to help us “stay true” or awake to our new awareness.
In our retreat work in Circles of Trust we’ve seen the power of being together in a way that supports each person’s inner journey while surrounding it with the resources of community—providing a hedge against self-deception, a tender nudge to not forget what we know, and encouragement to take new risks in our lives and work.
In tumultuous times like these, a community of this sort can make all the difference in the world. When I witness someone else’s journey toward wholeness and authenticity in the midst of tremendous change and uncertainty, I feel moved to support that person and am inspired to take my own steps in that direction. This is the opposite of my natural tendency in such times when it can feel more secure to hunker down.
We’ve learned a lot about the “habits of the heart” that can help all of us “resist gravity” this way, and about how circles of trust can help us develop those habits. We’ve also been asking how things we do in circles of trust can be used outside those circles in everyday relationships. What are you thinking about that question these days?
Parker: Even those of us who are up to our eyebrows in hosting Circles of Trust spend most of our time in other kinds of relationships—with family and friends, with colleagues in the workplace, with fellow citizens of the larger community. If our Circles teach nothing about “new possibilities” in these other worlds, we’re merely growing hothouse plants that can’t flourish outdoors.
But that’s not the case, and here’s one example. One of the first things we do in our Circles is to learn that trying to ”fix” or “save” each other is not a good thing. We learn instead to ask each other honest, open questions that help us reach deeper into our own truth, the only ground on which any of us can finally stand.
We’ve heard lots of stories about people who’ve taken this habit of the heart into their families with transforming results. Think of how often we want to tell our teenagers what to do, as we watch the teenage brain do its thing—which often means not calculating the costs and consequences of certain decisions! But when we learn to ask honest, open questions, we give the teenage brain a chance to evolve. More important, we are honoring the young person by saying, in effect, ”I think that deep-down you know the truth about this.“ And that itself is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
We’ve also heard stories about the transforming power of this habit in the workplace. For example, when the colleague you always disagree with says one more thing you disagree with, ask an honest, open question instead of arguing your case. What did you mean by such-and-such a word? What experience led you to this conviction? How do you see your solution playing itself out? People have changed the dance in difficult relationships by expressing real interest in where the other person is coming from, learning more about how that person thinks, and sometimes finding some common ground. Of course, these people are doing the same thing the parent is doing with that teenager—honoring the person by listening and wanting to know more about him or her.
And by the way, thanks for your comment about how I’ve actually learned a few things from hard experiences. Would that include the time I lost us a foundation grant by telling a joke that the program officer did not appreciate?
But that’s not an honest, open question! So let me ask one that is. What are you thinking these days about the ”exportability“ of what we do in Circles of Trust?
Marcy: Two things come to mind for me. The first is not so much an action or practice that people take away but rather a renewed appreciation for taking time to reflect—for stepping off the train racing down the track at break-neck speed and stopping long enough to look around and get your bearings. We have all sorts of names for that: becoming more centered, being present, paying attention, and being intentional about our life and choices to the extent that we can.
It’s not that Circles of Trust “teach” people to do that (though clearly people do develop important practices and ways of relating as you named above), but we do invite people to slow down and listen deeply to themselves and others. It sounds so simple, but we’ve seen time and again that it’s one of the hardest things for people to do—we’re so used to being in states of “constant partial attention!”
Which reminds me of that great story you tell about the surgeon who says to her students, “You have exactly sixty seconds to tie off this patient’s artery before he bleeds to death—so you’d better take your time!”
The second thing I’d name is that people take away a deepened understanding and appreciation for paradox. The journey we take in Circles of Trust—and in our lives outside the circle—requires us to hold many things as “both-and” rather than “either-or.” For example, we listen to the inner teacher and to the voices in the circle, letting our soulful insights and the collective wisdom check and balance each other. The capacity to hold the paradox that we and our world are both broken and whole—and to stand and act creatively in that gap—is one of the fruits of this approach, and has been key to every life-giving movement for change.
Parker, it’s been great talking with you about these questions and “habits of the heart!” Now I’d like to pose the question we’ve been exploring to our readers, many of whom have participated in Circles of Trust:
What have you found to be “exportable” from Circles of Trust and how has it shown up in your life or work outside of your retreat experience?
If you're interested in attending an introductory Circle of Trust retreat next month, please join us August 13-15 in Minneapolis. Register here.