Flickr photo by Charmaine Sylvia Photography

Dialoguing for Health

By Kimberly Burnham 

The question of what we need in order to dialogue across differences raises more questions: Are we different? Do we need to dialogue? Is it even possible?

Are We Different?

One way to succeed in the world is to stand out, to excel, to be better than or different than those around you. In our quest for success, happiness, resources, etc. we may lose track of our similarities and focus on our differences. It is an admirable quality to try to be the best at something, to come up with a uniquely creative idea that moves society forward, or to distinguish yourself in some other way.

I get it. We are different and it can be challenging to talk to someone who is very different. I lived in five countries and learned four languages by the time I was 28. I know what it feels like to be a foreigner, a gringo, a gaijin and an ugly American.

And some of those experiences were hard to navigate but they taught me that we can always find common ground. We are human and many of us want the same things for ourselves and our families: love, peace,\ and health. When we can see that we are not so different it is easier to dialogue across those differences while still valuing each person’s uniqueness.

As the 13th century poet, Rumi said, “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”

There is a unity and wholeness that doesn’t need words when we see our similarities and the ideas we can agree on but that view of the unity of the world can be fleeting.


We understand our world through our senses and through duality. We understand what hot is because we understand cold. Hot is relative. Something is hot compared to something else. Is 90 degrees Fahrenheit hot to everyone? No, it describes a mild day in the summertime desert. If the temperature of the sun were 90 degrees it would be considered very cold.

We may have a similar experience with the descriptions of good and bad. When does an action become good? When does it become bad? Ultimately, who decides, when we are each so different.

Sometimes we knew right away when something is bad or good. Sometimes it takes living through an experience to understand the nuances of life. Is the oil pipeline good or bad? Is war good or bad? Is Christianity good or bad? Is being gay good or bad?

It depends on who you are talking to.

So perhaps first we have to find common ground in order to dialogue across differences. Perhaps it is a common language or finding that one way in which we are similar.

Fear and Information

One reason to dialogue across differences is that often we fear what we don’t understand or see as “other.” Better understanding leads to less fear, better health, and more peace.

“Recent theories distinguish anxiety from fear in the brain,” said F. Rigoli et al  in “Threat visibility modulates the defensive brain circuit underlying fear and anxiety.” The researchers continued, “These theories propose that the amount of information available about threat determines which of the two defensive responses is elicited, with fear and anxiety associated with well-defined and uncertain threats respectively.”

Fear and anxiety affect the brain differently. “Anxiety is associated with activation in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, while fear is associated with activation in periaqueductal grey, with amygdala involved in processing aspects of both emotional responses,” said Rigoli of test results where “in one condition (associated with fear) the predator was visible, while in another condition (associated with anxiety) the predator was invisible.”

Talking, listening, looking, and seeing are all ways to gather information and engage or rule out a threat to our safety. Without dialoguing can we ever have enough information to feel safe?

Survival of the …

There has been a lot of discussion of the survival of the fittest but new research is changing how we look at this. The research seems to be saying that if you are only out for your own survival – fight, use whatever means necessary. Destroy any threat to your survival. But if you want your community or family or species or world to survive you have to take a different tactic.

Jonathan Balcombe who said, “There are no great differences between us humans and the other animals when it comes to intelligence, emotion and the like,” explained it in this way: “When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain the Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot, he replied: “Do not do unto others that which is repugnant to you. Everything else is commentary.” In closing, we offer this one-foot summary of sociobiology’s new foundation: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups [individuals in relationship to other individuals].Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”  Groups can of course be defined as families, communities, countries, species, etc.

Talk to me.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Dialoguing Through Our Differences” at 10 a.m., Jan. 2 at Indaba Coffee, 1425 W Broadway. Burnham is a panelist.

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