A “Meaningful” Solution

In my “Our Primary Problem,” I asserted that the primary problem facing us—Americans and humans—is the threat of “runaway” (associated with “global warming”), with a secondary problem being that we have, over the centuries, developed ways of life increasingly discordant with the “design specifications” that we acquired prior to the Agricultural Revolution (which began about 10,000 years ago). I suggested that a way out of the first problem lay with the development, and deployment, as soon as possible, of alternate sources of energy, but that that solution would only worsen the second problem. The way out of the second problem, I argued, would seem to be way-of-life change, and I identified two possible courses for that solution—that of self-sufficient homesteading, and the development of self-sufficient “intentional” communities. I noted that moving in that direction held the possibility of addressing both problems simultaneously, but that it was unlikely that that course would be taken by enough people actually to solve either problem. I then left the reader with the likely prospect that our species will be basically extinct before the century is over. (Sorry about that!)

Although I made no mention of it in “Our Primary Problem,” I do believe that there is another possible course—one that holds considerable promise, and is a “different sort of animal” than the ones discussed in the earlier paper. Different, in that it is not offered as solutions in itself but, rather, as a means to them—hence the use of quotation marks around “meaningful” in the title above. What I propose here, then, as a “means” is a special type of discussion group, what I will refer to here as a Structured Interaction Group (SIG).

What led me to this “discovery”? I’m not sure in what chronological order the following “events” occurred (likely they interacted one with another in their development, after all), but if I impose a logical order on those “events,” I would need to start by mentioning a growing realization, on my part, that the older I get, the more I recognize how little I know. I know that as one grows older, one supposedly gains in wisdom, but as I grow older (I’m now 71) I’m not even sure about that!

Given this “enlightenment,” I have come to see myself as one of the blind men in the story of the blind men and the elephant. That is, I have come to realize that the total Truth escapes me—but also escapes everyone else as well.

However, I also recognize that each of us possesses part of the Truth, so that given that, it would make sense for people to get together in small groups to share their truths. The question that then arose was: But what “rules,” if any, should guide this discussion process?

It seemed to me that if discussion is allowed to proceed on a “free-for-all” basis, at least two problems will tend to arise. First, one or just a few individuals will tend to dominate the discussion—their doing so signaling the belief (if but unconscious), on their part, that they, and only they, have the truth in their possession, and that only they, therefore, are important. That is, domination of the discussion by a few individuals conveys the message that we are not all equal—even if those “few” don’t intend to convey such a message.

The second problem with “free-for-all” sorts of discussions is that they often become “heated.” Because of that possibility, some members of the group, knowing that this might occur, and feeling intimidated by that possibility, try to prevent it from happening by suppressing their views—so that what they say is not in total agreement with what they actually believe. In addition, if efforts to prevent disharmony fail anyway, so that the discussion starts to become “heated,” what tends to occur is that:

  • Any sense of solidarity which may have existed before within the group soon disappears;
  • The meeting ends; and
  • The group dissolves;—with
  • Its participants perhaps then even becoming enemies who cease speaking to one another.

Given the strong possibility that free-for-all discussions might quickly degenerate into heated shouting matches, with the group then disintegrating as a discussion group, I concluded that for a discussion group to “work,” it needed to have some definite structure. In developing—over a period of time—that structure, my inspiration (so far as I can recall) came from three sources, the first two of which related to meetings rather than to discussion groups per se. In addition, they had in common that they had their derivation in Judeo-Christianity:

  • Ideas generated by a “heretical” Christian of the first century named Marcus, and
  • Contemporary Quaker (i.e., Society of Friends) practice.

The Marcus in question had created a type of meeting where the speaker of the day was chosen at random from among those attending. ((Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979, pp. 41 – 43.)) Use of a random procedure was based on the ancient Hebrew conviction that it is God who chooses when selections are made at random (see references to the Thummin and Urim in what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament,” and Acts 1:26—where Matthias was chosen to replace Judas.)

Contemporary Quaker practice, in contrast, involves members meeting, and waiting for the “Holy Spirit” to inspire someone (i.e., one or more) to speak (or sing and play a melody on a guitar, etc.); during a given meeting, thus, as many speak (etc.) as feel “led” to do so. But in neither Marcus’s meetings centuries ago nor in contemporary Quaker “worship” services did (or does) any discussion occur—except perhaps after the meeting. Thus, I could not find a complete answer in these two sources.

I then turned to a Native American practice, and borrowed the idea of structuring discussion sessions by using a “talking stick” (or feather, etc.). Use of a “talking …” in the first place represents an admission on the part of all those present that each is somewhat “crazy” (!), but that a controlled (i.e., “ritualistic”) sort of discussion might help each one become less crazy. Second, and related to this, use of this procedure might be conducive to (a) participants speaking what was on their mind, (b) a high degree of equality in how much time each used in speaking, and (c) civil discussions that didn’t get out of hand (among other possibilities—some identified later).

Here’s how this process would work (tentatively):

  • Participants meet at some given location and time.
  • Each writes his/her name on a slip, and deposits it in a container.
  • Someone selected in advance (a functionary whom we might refer to as the King!) picks, at random, a slip from the container. That person becomes the Leader for that session. (Whether the belief prevails, within the group, that God was responsible for that choice would be expected to vary from group to group. ((Just because I derived this idea from ancient Judaeo-Christianity, it doesn’t follow that those who adopt the Structured Interaction Group must accept that belief. I am not particularly concerned about the belief structure of those who might adopt the SIG; rather, my interest is in it becoming adopted—by as many people as possible, regardless of belief system.)) )
  • The Leader speaks about that which s/he feels “led” to speak (for no more than about 10-15 minutes, perhaps).
  • The Leader then passes the “talking …” to the person on her/his left, and that person reacts to what the Leader has said (striving to be civil, of course).
  • That person does the same, etc.
  • If the discussion starts to become heated, the Leader is expected to ask everyone present to hold hands (and the others present are expected to comply with that request). Why? Because touch connects people—not only literally, but psychologically.

If one has been passed the “talking ..,” but wishes to say nothing (at that point), one simply passes it on. Thus, everyone is given an opportunity to speak, but one does not need to—unless, of course, one is the Leader for that session! The meeting continues until “time is up”—or no one has anything to add to the discussion.

If the above gives a brief outline of what would be involved (tentatively) with a SIG, I offer the following as more specific guidelines:

  • Members of the group must accept the above premises and conclusions; i.e., at least that much uniformity must exist within the group. They must regard each other member of the group (each other human, in fact) as their equal, and accept as a truism that one person’s views are as worthy of expression and consideration as those of any other person in the group.
  • Each member of the group should have an opportunity to “speak one’s truth” and, indeed, ideally all members will speak for about the same length of time during a given session. This ideal likely would never be met, however, because during a given session one or more members may not feel “led” to speak (or speak much)—and certainly one should not feel an obligation to speak just for the sake of speaking. On the other hand, though, if one feels very talkative during a given session, one should attempt to restrain oneself: monopolization of the talking is strongly discouraged (and should, in fact, be prevented by the Leader).
  • When one is speaking, one should feel at liberty to say what one genuinely feels “called” to say. Which is not to say, however, that one should resort to vulgarity, or impropriety in some way (e.g., speaking in an undiplomatic manner).
  • When one is speaking, one should avoid criticizing others in the group, or trying to discredit what they say. One should show respect for others in the group—keeping in mind the Golden Rule principle, rather than trying to impose one’s own point of view on the others present. If one has a viewpoint that is in opposition to one that someone else has expressed, one should simply state one’s own (contrary) viewpoint without comment on what someone else has expressed.
  • When one is not speaking, one should listen—not just be preparing one’s own “speech” for when it is time for one to speak again. One is expected to be (or at least become, with time) convinced that one does not possess the whole truth; that, rather, one is like one of the blind men feeling the elephant. So that given that one wishes to know more of the truth, one needs to listen attentively to others as they speak.
  • If discussion seems to be proceeding down a certain path “naturally,” one should not (as Leader) try to divert it down some other path—either because one doesn’t like that path, or because one has certain notions of where the discussion should head, and believes one has the right to divert the discussion in that direction.
  • All should be aware of the danger of the group becoming too “cozy.” Thus, each person present (and not just the Leader) should consider the possibility that at times s/he should act as a (diplomatic) “devil’s advocate” (but only when it is one’s turn to speak—unless one is the Leader for that particular session).
  • On the other hand, there is always the possibility that the discussion will start to become “heated.” It is then the Leader’s responsibility to instruct all participants to hold hands (to repeat what I said earlier).
  • One should feel free (when it is one’s turn to speak) to introduce (harmless) levity into the discussion, from time to time, if one feels so inclined. In fact, I would encourage people so to do!
  • There is always the possibility that some who join a given SIG group will not “fit in” well. Therefore, a group should decide early on in its existence how it will handle that eventuality.

As a given group gains experience over time, it likely will add to this list of “rules”—or modify some of them. After all, I do not have a patent on the SIG, so that people are welcome to “run with it” in whatever direction they choose. Among those “rules” might be one that specified the ideal size of group, and how to proceed in the event that the “ideal” size becomes grossly exceeded. (My opinion, at this point, is that the ideal size is about 12, but I have not “set that number in concrete.”)

Given that my intention here is that this paper complement “Our Primary Problem,” it follows that I would like to see SIGs developed by people interested in addressing the problems identified in that paper. But, of course, people are free to initiate SIGs with other purposes in mind as well, and I welcome that.

Regardless of why a given group initiates a SIG, I expect that participation in one would result in:

  • Learning on the part of all participants.
  • Creative solutions to problems—indeed, creativity in more general terms.
  • A sense of solidarity developing within the group—especially as the members reach a consensus on some matter.
  • A feeling of energy and enthusiasm—indeed, a general sense of well-being—resulting from achieving a sense of solidarity.
  • Decisions regarding actions to engage in by most, or all, members of the group, followed by actions themselves.
  • Etc.

So far as I know, no SIG (by any name) yet exists, although I am currently making an effort to initiate one. Given, thus, that I can draw on no experience with the SIG, I can only guess at possible consequences of SIG participation. At some in the near future, however, I hope that there will be experience with this institution, so that more definitive comments can be made regarding it.

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.