Everyone Has a Piece of the Truth
My education about the theory of change began in 1978 as a teacher at Carolina Friends School. It was my first experience with Quaker culture, built on deep and true listening, where everyone has a piece of the Truth, where evaluating—rather than judging—is practiced, where time is viewed as an essential partner to reaching consensus, where competition to be right is replaced by a desire to do what’s right for the collective good. We actively lived the mission every day:
Belief that Truth is continually revealed, which implies: Openness to answer the light in others; willingness to listen and respond to the still small voice within;
belief that answers are dynamic, not static; commitment to look beyond and beneath the obvious, searching for truth and identifying falsehood; engagement
in the search for truth because of its inherent value, not simply to find answers.
Here is a meditation on my first awakening.
New to the consensus process and to the absurd notion that everyone has a piece of the Truth, and short on the patience required to deal with either, I do my best to settle into my first Middle School Meeting for Business (staff meeting). I’ve been a city girl most of my life and even the surrounding woods the school is nested in are foreign to me. Norm, the science teacher, breaks the ritual opening silence. He methodically explains to the rest of us how some of his students had sighted a copperhead on the bridge that crosses the creek and links the Middle to the Upper School. His query: “What should we do about the snake?”
What should we do about the snake?? How could the science teacher not know what to do about a
poisonous snake on school grounds? I knew the answer before he could even finish posing his question.
“Kill it!” I say, of course. There it was—quick and simple. Now perhaps we might move on to more weighty educational issues.
Then came a particular kind of silence that would, over the years, become a familiar and welcome sound to me—one that allows the mind to decipher the messages the heart quietly telegraphs to it and gives space for contemplation. But at this particular moment, I am truly mystified. Why isn’t anyone immediately agreeing with me? Jumping on the bandwagon? Making elaborate poisonous snake extinction plans? And furthermore, why isn’t anyone taking charge of this situation? When do we vote?
Norm, Stewart, and others seated around the makeshift meeting space tucked in the corner of the cavernous middle school building, offer that we must protect the snake’s right to live in its natural environment. Others respond that we must protect our students and the neighborhood children who play on school property. A group of articulate, thoughtful educators calmly and truly divided. And because we are practicing Quaker consensus, we have to solve this problem so that we can live with it, explain it, and support it. We’ll never get out of here.
Variations on the concerns branch out from the center, weave themselves around each other, intersect, and sometimes retreat. Something strange is happening here that I have never witnessed before. Each person is truly listening to the others; each point is genuinely being considered. And furthermore, as a result, people are actually able to let go of opinions they previously held and sometimes passionately put forth. And all the while, everyone is working toward a solution, not merely arguing her or his point.
Sixty minutes or so pass. The group falls naturally quiet. Norm once again breaks the silence. “I hear the different points of view expressed here. I hear how our first obligation is to the children’s safety. I don’t, however, want to simply kill the snake.” The collective body language signals a sympathetic response. Another brief silence. Norm continues. “Why not make this an educational opportunity? Let’s show the kids ecology in action. (Judy and Mickey: prepare the barn!) King snakes are natural predators of copperheads; let’s release one near the bridge and allow nature to take its own ecological course while teaching kids about snakes and safety.” This seasoned gathering, having researched the Truth together, heartily affirms Norm’s proposed solution. Some brief, noisy, lateral chatter follows: an offer from Henry to supply the King snake he saw roaming around his backwoods. Thomas suggests a way for kids to safely track and monitor the caper. A plan is forming.
Hattie appropriately invites us to settle out silently together and nonchalantly suggests we reflect on the process and how we each may have contributed to the solution. The meeting adjourned. I went for a walk in the woods.