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An address originally delivered at the Circling the Wagons Conference in February 2015
We are here today because we have a history with issues that concern us, and the voices of experts have not always been helpful. We have lost people who have not been helped and we have crafted solutions. Some decades ago when our young people wondered where to turn when they couldn’t reconcile their feelings with their faith, there was little to offer them. Many felt their only option was to leave the Church and they found little guidance or spiritual support in their journey. Affirmation was organized to support people who might otherwise feel alone. Then as people began realizing they didn’t have to abandon their faith in order to accept themselves, North Star was born. And both organizations continue to help people. How far we have come! I spoke recently with a man who said with some poignance, “When I was younger, if we’d had the resources and understanding we have today, I might have been able to stay married to my wife. But I thought the only honest thing to do was to admit failure because I couldn’t get rid of the feelings.” How far we have come! How much more we understand!

Thank you to Jay Jacobsen, Tera Brown, Anne Peffer, and Kendall Wilcox for believing that learning how to dialogue, listening and sharing ourselves in courageous conversations is worth our best efforts (and certainly worth a Saturday). Hearing each other, in effect, circles the wagons around us to protect and promote growth in love and wisdom and in favor with God and with our brothers and sisters. I’m grateful for everyone who came to the workshop last night and participated in sharing themselves in a place that attempted to be open.

I believe that the gains to be made in this process of hearing others and sharing ourselves is more lasting than the pain we experience when we fail to connect with people we want to reach, and more powerful than the chasms that keep us apart.

I also believe that the more we can share of ourselves without expecting others to change, but share simply with the hope that they will share more of themselves with us, the more love and connection we will experience. Let me say that again, because that is often new information for clients in my therapy practice and goes against much of our experience: the more we can share of ourselves without expecting others to change, but share with them our own stories and feelings in the hope that they will share more of themselves with us, the more love and connection we will experience.

And love and connection have always been the surest way to a change of heart.

We tend to think otherwise; we tend to think that giving information is the best pathway to change of heart: If I can give you really good information from a source you find credible, why, you will change what you think! And yet what we hold true for ourselves is much more likely to come from a feeling place inside us than from an information place. What we believe comes from a place generated by our most profound experiences, our fervent yearnings, our fears and our lonelinesses, our greatest joys and most transcendent belongings, in short, from our stories and the feelings they generate for us.

Neuroscientist Antonio Domasio has demonstrated in peer-reviewed research that even when we think we are making logical decisions, we are actually consulting our emotions rather than our thoughts.1 People whose brain injuries render them incapable of processing emotion and who therefore process information with only their rational powers can give you all the reasons to choose one belief or another, but don’t have what we might call a “gut” sense that something is true or right. They have a notoriously hard time deciding things as small as which day to make their next appointment because if Tuesday and Wednesday work equally well, they cannot make up their minds.

It seems to be our emotional experiences that give us direction, and those motivating experiences can be with God or with other people.

When we hear others’ stories and experience the emotions they felt during those events, our own brains respond. Functional MRI studies show that when we hear stories of others’ pain, the pain response centers in our own brains light up as if it were our own pain.2 When we hear others’ stories, we are more likely to become vulnerable and to feel the emotion in the story. We are more likely to connect.

In the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Benjamin Broome and Mary Jane Collier note a finding culled from many years’ experience in areas of intractable conflict: Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, Kenya, India, Native American tribal governance, and South Africa. 3 They assert that, “[M]ore communication and contact between opposing parties does not necessarily change relationships, representations or resources,” concluding that “intergroup dialogue often benefits those who were of higher status to begin with.”4

When change occurred, they noted, it was tied to relationships that formed between and among group members which, in turn, molded and shaped individual thinking, leading to shifts in attitudes, perceptions, communication styles, trust, power, and reconciliation.5

So we want to do more than just talk, we want to create relationship by sharing our stories with each other. And yet, here is the irony we face at a conference like this one: My sharing my story might hurt you. Your sharing your story might hurt me. Simply by seizing some choices in our journey, we de-select other choices. The truths I have come to cherish and my journey to hold them close might dismiss what you believe about your life’s purposes. My story might include how God called me to do something that, when it comes right down to it, you would not attribute to God. My choices might suggest that yours are less valuable. The words I use to tell you my story might suggest that yours is somehow less meaningful. Even the way I conceptualize a problem may BE the problem between us. And yet, unless we are prepared to hurt and be hurt, and then to come together in hopes of better understanding each other, we will not be able to move forward together.

These impacts between people who care about each other call for courageous conversations, conversations that begin with something like, “Could I share with you something about my reaction to your story?” or “I would really like to connect with you, but I’m having trouble with something I’d like to tell you about.”

This is the process of peacebuilding, a term originally introduced by Norwegian peace and conflict researcher Johan Galtung6 and later adopted by the United Nations in its Agenda for Peace7 that we build on here at Circling the Wagons.

And in the spirit of authenticity, I will share a bite-sized version of my own journey as a peace-builder, which has had several stages. In my early years, I devoted myself to learning the basic rules of spiritual life and found transcendence in obedience to the laws and principles that shone brightly as coming directly from God. I Nephi 3:7 was my favorite scripture and it was no mistake that Bill and I took as our motto, “I will go, I will do the thing the Lord commands” and delighted to hear the song we wrote being sung around the world.8

This sense of loyalty to God has never left me, even as I have expanded my world to consider stories that do not fall easily within the parameters of my original worldview and have had to seek God to help me make room for these additional stories. Stories shared by my LGBT brothers and sisters have figured significantly. I saw in them my own yearning for meaning, for divine communication, for belonging, for progress, for acceptance, for redemption. At this next step in my life, my favorite scripture came from the Pearl of Great Price, describing Abraham as a seeker who desired the blessings of the fathers, desiring “to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to [be] a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God” (Abraham 1:2). And these commandments I yearned to keep were of a broader nature, and might be said to encompass “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home . . . and the judgments which are on the land. . . That ye may be prepared in all things. . . “ (D&C 88:79, 80).

In fact, it has been this very process of learning of things both in heaven and in the earth that has expanded my vision and experience with God till I say, “Although I have had more experience with God in the last ten years than I ever dreamed of having as a young person, I may not in this life ever know God as completely as I then thought was possible, and despite finding God bigger and more comprehensive than I can now know, I also feel in the deepest part of my spirit that God has asked me to do certain tasks as a human being, and I must be true to that.” My work here is an important part of that.

During my graduate program at BYU I took a course in biofeedback. By measuring skin conductance, skin temperature, heart rate variability, breathing, and muscle tension, we could track a person’s emotional experience when he or she gave no visible sign of emotion. When asked even a benign question, the person’s system showed emotional arousal, a bit of nervousness at being invited to speak and respond to a question. When asked to remember something annoying or difficult that had happened recently, the body instantly responded with signals of distress, all while the person was resting easily in the biofeedback chair. When asked to remember an experience of social rejection, people’s invisible stress responses soared, yet they were able to keep acting relaxed and indicated they were doing just fine.9

Why does this matter? Because these invisible stress reactions have been confirmed scientifically as being connected with chronic anxiety, asthma, migraine headaches, essential hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, TMJ, chronic low back pain and other chronic pain disorders.10 Our reactions to social rejection emerge in physical vulnerabilities to injury, pain and disability.11

When we suggest through our own behavior that someone else’s story is not valuable to us, we contribute to the stress and illness in the world by participating in social rejection. The micro-aggressions we contribute to, the ones we perpetuate have ripple effects.12

So these ideas set the stage for something specific I would like to propose we do individually. And that is best described by the life of Reinhold von Thadden, a German Christian who was arrested numerous times during World War II for the crime of practicing Christianity.13 Drafted into the German military, he survived despite refusing to execute Belgian hostages or to destroy their food supply as ordered. After nine months in a Russian prison, having been reduced to 90 pounds, he returned home at the end of the war to find three of his five sons had been killed in action and his sister had been executed by the Nazis.

His lifework then became gathering Christians together to search for solutions to the social problems plaguing Germany after the war. Von Thadden spearheaded a movement that went from city to city, setting up groups to discuss common problems, charging them with finding practical, workable ways to apply their Christian convictions to their everyday decisions in the post-war wreckage that was Germany. One of the ideas generated in Von Thadden’s movement was called Aktion Suhnezeichen, or Operation Atonement. This was a penance corps composed of some 200 young Germans dedicated to fostering reconciliation with peoples scarred by Nazi atrocities. Enlisting for six months to a year and working without salary, members would go to “those who have every reason to hate us,” and demonstrate their desire to expiate their fathers’ crimes.14

In an area of Norway where the Nazi scorched-earth policy of 1944 leveled almost every house, members of the corps constructed a home for vulnerable children near Narvik, and a village church near Hammerfest. In Holland, they erected a youth center. In France a new church at Taizé; in Greece, they restored a village completely burned by German soldiers.

For these young German Christians hungry for a new beginning, anxious to throw off the sins and mistakes of their forefathers, it was not enough to claim the new and move forward. Even though few of these young Germans had been part of the war, they somehow understood that coming together and re-connecting with their estranged neighbors had as much to do with atoning for the misdeeds of their forefathers as it did with telling their own stories.

So when people are resistant to our stories, I wonder whether it is possible for us to carry in ourselves this same wisdom: To see what we represent to other people – whether accurately or not – and show understanding and a willingness to atone for those who have ideologically gone before us. Can each of us, individually and collectively, create our own Operation Atonement as we engage in Courageous Conversations?

Can we refrain from criticizing or defending what has gone before us as we bear the weight of pain caused by decision and policies of others? Can we be patient as we come to know what painful characters we represent in others’ stories?

My hope in speaking here this afternoon is that you and I will have courageous conversations with each other and with important people in our lives, that the places we meet will be safe places where the atonement will be part of our speech and our actions, and the love of God will shine through our listening and our requests to be heard. I hope that I will be open to learning from you about my impact on you. I hope that my passion for what seems true and important to me will neither blind me to you, nor give you the impression I am too busy, too pressed, too focused to hear your opposing and enlightening point of view.

I hope to follow the vision Ezekiel gave of what Christ would say: “I will seek that which was lost and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up. . . that which was broken.” Redeeming and restoring relationship with God and with each other is surely what Christ came to do.

And my hope is also that our conversations include many more authentic stories of all kinds. May we find ourselves connecting with people we never thought would receive us, and may we find ourselves receiving people we never thought we would delight in receiving.

Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen

1 Immordino-Yang, M. H. & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education, Mind, Brain, and Education, 1, 3-10.

Damasio, A. R. (2001). Emotion and the human Brain, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 935, 101-106.

2Singer T, S. B., O’Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R. J., Frith, C. D. (2004). Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science, 303(5661), 1157-1162.

Price, D. D. (9 June 2000). Psychological and neural mechanisms of the affective dimension of pain. Science 288 (5472), 1769–1772.doi:10.1126/science.288.5472.1769.

3 Broome, B. J., & Collier, M. J. (2012). Culture, communication and peacebuilding: A reflexive multi-dimensional contextual framework. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 5 (4), 245-269.

4 Ibid, p. 249.

5 Ibid p. 249.

6 Galtung, J. (1975). Three approaches to peace. In J. Galtung (Ed.), Essays in peace research. Vol 1( 282-304). Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers.

7 United Nations. (1992). An agenda for peace: Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping. Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations GA and SC, a/47/277, s/24111, June 17.

8 Hansen, W.N. & Hansen, L. T. (1989). Nephi’s Courage, Children’s Songbook. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

9 van der Kolk, B. A. (1988). The trauma spectrum: The interaction of biological and social events in the genesis of the trauma response, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1 (3), 273-290.

10 Khazan, I. Z. (2013). Clinical handbook of biofeedback: Step-by-step Guide for Training and Practice with Mindfulness. Oxford: Wiley.

11 Eisenberger, N. I., Taylor, S. E., Gable, S. L., Hilmert, C. J., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural pathways link social support to attenuated neuroendocrine stress responses. NeuroImage, 35(4), 1601–1612. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.01.038

12 Nadal, K. L., Rivera, D. P, Corpus, M. J. H. (2010). Sexual orientation and transgender microaggressions. In D. W. Sue (Ed.) Microaggressions and Marginality. Hoboken: Wiley.

13 Hall, C. W. (Jan 1962). Reinhold von Thadden gave a nation back its soul. Readers’ Digest.

14 Ibid.

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