by Elizabeth Lynn
"There are trees that can grow only in a forest," John Dewey observed in a Zen-like moment.
And there is a wisdom we can access only in conversation with fellow human beings. This is why, I believe, people are hungry to be in conversation with others about the moral fabric of their lives.
This hunger has spurred the proliferation of groups-book, support, and discussion groups or programs that focus on a range of topics, including aligning our money and our values. These small forums are valuable because they help us express our views and consider those of others.
And yet, as anyone who has participated in them can attest, it can be hard to move a group conversation beyond the exchange of opinions into the realm of meaningful reflection. Why? Support groups rely heavily on the collective wisdom of the participants. Conversation is thus circumscribed by the inevitable limits of that wisdom- as well as by a conditioned reluctance to probe the beliefs or experiences of group members too deeply.
So, too, current events, news stories, magazine articles, even current fiction, may be hard to discuss in-depth precisely because they are current in nature; group members are likely to have formed strong opinions before the conversation even begins.
About a decade ago, I and my colleagues in philanthropy and education began to realize that additional resources were needed to help citizens reflect at a deeper level in conversation about their moral values.
With support from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., we started a modest experiment called the Project on Civic Reflection, which has researched, developed, and sought to share those additional resources. Our goal, simply put, has been to deepen reflection on civic life in America.
In the eight years since, working with
state humanities councils and other partner
organizations, we have helped scores
of groups and organizations across the
country read and discuss short texts
drawn from literature, philosophy, and
religion, as a means of reflecting on basic
questions at the heart of their giving,
serving, leading and associating activities.
We call this practice civic reflection.
In our programs, 10 to 20 people
come together to talk about their civic
activities and commitments. Gathering
in a hospitable place, they share food,
and then participate in a facilitated discussion
of a short but often complex
reading. Short stories, scripture passages,
philosophical works, and fantasy
prose have all been discussed. In each
case, however, the reading illuminates a
fundamental question at the heart of
that group's common civic work.
For example, two women who lead nonprofit organizations in Indiana, where our project is based, wanted to create a support network for women leaders in their particular county. They organized a group that met monthly for a meal and conversation about their idea. But instead of a recent article or Powerpoint presentation on leadership techniques, they discussed readings by writers ranging from Tocqueville to Toni Morrison. The discussions helped them discover that they are not alone in their challenges- but that neither are they all alike.
"That was the real success of the group," one participant said. "When we read a story together we didn't get the same thing out of it. We drew upon our own personal experiences, who we are."
Closer to home, I had the pleasure last fall of facilitating a group reflection at the More Than Money Institute's national gathering in Connecticut. The participants included about 25 people who varied by age, region, ethnicity and profession. Most of them did not know each other. For the reading, I selected "Another Case of Ingratitude," John Reed's 1915 short story about an interaction in which a man of means gives a homeless man food and a bed for the night but does not get what he wanted in return.
We read it silently and then shared our responses and insights. We asked ourselves,
how can we understand thetwo men in this story and the choices they
make? What do we expect from others in
return for helping them?
came away more thoughtful about their
own expectations of giving and serving -and more insightful about the others in their midst.
As director of the Project on Civic Reflection, I've had the opportunity to lead many such conversations in civic settings across our country-from Rotary clubs to community service organizations, from chambers of commerce to grantmakers' groups. Spreading the practice of reading and discussion in civic settings is slow, hard work. Civic life is, after all, an active realm-where we go to interact with others and act on our values. It feels counter-intuitive to stop and reflect on those values, once we are out there acting. No one has actually said it, but I sometimes see the thought flash across their faces. "Say that again. You want us to stop and read a short story during our community meeting? Are you crazy?"
Maybe I am crazy. But what keeps me doing this work is a little something I discovered early on in life, in the classrooms and congregations of my youth. When I talk about texts with other people, I find out things about myself and about them that I would not otherwise know. I become wiser. I grow into a different and better sort of tree. There are trees which can grow only in a forest. And there is a wisdom that we access only when we enter into conversation with others about our moral choices and commitments.
Elizabeth Lynn advises groups and programs nationwide as director of the Project on Civic Reflection. She holds a doctorate in religion and literature from the University of Chicago and has published articles on civic life, giving, and philanthropy in several publications, including two essays she coauthored in
The Perfect Gift
(Indiana University Press, 2002).
Click here for Sample Reading and Questions for Reflection
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