I was fast asleep when the phone rang. It was a close friend, hundreds of miles away, having a heart attack.
Or so she feared. Given her health history, a panic attack was as likely as heart trouble. Why didn’t she just call 911? Because she has no insurance and almost no savings. Any medical expense could sink her.
I am no healthcare expert, so I did what I could. I asked her to describe her symptoms while I booted up WebMD on my laptop. I read her the symptoms of heart attack and panic attack. We finally agreed she should at least try 911 and make it clear she could not pay for the service.
It turned out well. The 911 dispatcher was a model of calm and compassion. He told her that, while an ambulance ride would cost her, a visit from the EMTs was free. They came, ran some tests, and determined that it was indeed a panic attack. They got her calmed down. Crisis over.
I don’t think of dialogue in the context of emergencies. You don’t want your EMTs thoughtfully exchanging views on heart function when yours is in full crisis mode. Yet the more I pondered this incident, the more I saw the elements of dialogue in it.
Consider the challenges involved here. The conversation with my friend required my full attention. I had to listen carefully and precisely to what she said: not just the words, but the feeling and thinking behind them. Together, we had to talk through—as calmly as possible—what was happening and the options for action. All of this needed to come from a place of calm within me, so I didn’t add to her stress.
Listening. Attention to the moment. A full focus on the other person. Thinking together toward a course of action. Respect and calm to avoid inflammatory language. All coming from a peace of soul that we have cultivated within us, and with God. Key elements of dialogue as we’ve discussed it here in the past two years.
That messes with my mental categories a bit. Way back when I started writing about dialogue, I worked through a preliminary definition. I think it still makes sense, as far as it goes. But behind the words, I hear a sense of dialogue as something formal, something we intentionally sit down and have. Many practitioners of dialogue think in the same terms: dialogue involves group processes, intentionally convened groups, specific agendas.
All of that is assuredly part of dialogue. But I wonder whether the word dialogue shouldn’t encompass a much broader scope as well. Perhaps it’s less a way of meeting and talking than a way of being—an orientation that equips us to respond in a dialogic way regardless of the situation.
Perhaps, in other words, dialogue isn’t something we do only to determine public policy, or understand other faith traditions, or work out differences with our loved ones, as important as those aims are. Perhaps dialogue is something we live whenever, wherever the situation requires it. Even in emergencies.
What do you think? Is dialogue a set of processes, a formal event, or a way of being as well?