As a new intern for the Center for Civic Reflection, I felt privileged to take part in a Reflective Reading Facilitation Workshop for palliative care and hospice professionals at Prentice Women’s hospital in Chicago on September 20th, 2013. The participants were medical professionals from palliative care and hospice groups in the Chicago area, including doctors, nurses, medical social workers, and hospice chaplains. I am pursuing a doctoral degree in philosophy, so as a student and as a teacher, I am curious about the way civic reflection is both similar to and/or different from discussion of philosophy or literature in a higher education setting.
After introductions, one of our trainers, Adar Cohen, Director of Programs of the Civic Leadership Foundation, modeled how to facilitate a civic reflection (or reflective reading) discussion by leading the group in a discussion of two images, and then focusing on a poem, “Okay,” by Lowell Jaeger. He helped us warm up for the discussion of the poem by asking us to think of a time when we had helped someone, and to split up into pairs to share our anecdotes. Then the whole group read the poem aloud together, going around the table, with each of us reading one stanza. Jaeger’s poem narrates a story about a man who is driving home from a trip to the Hot Springs with his wife and three kids. On the way, they encounter a man who stands in the middle of the road and waves them down for help. The narrator stops as the kids cry out that the man is holding a dog. He sees that the man is clearly homeless and drunk, as he cries despairingly that he has just run over his dog, and begs for help to save the animal. The narrator is uncertain of what is “okay” and struggles to decide what to do.
Adar begins the discussion by asking a few crisply worded questions of clarification about concrete details in the poem. “Why does the narrator stop?” he asks. Members of the group readily answer that he stops because of the dog, and more specifically, because the kids cry out when they see the dog. He asks us, “What kind of help does the man want or need?” Participants reply that he wants help to save his dog’s life, although it is uncertain what will be necessary to do so. These questions of clarification are the sorts of questions that students typically do not want to answer in the college classroom. But while everyone in the room may know the answers, clarifying these details is a way of making the text a common object of our attention as a group.
The discussion moves on to questions of significance that require an interpretation of what happens in the text. Adar asks us what risks narrator and his family take by stopping. Participants suggest the narrator risks his family’s security by letting a drunken, desperate man into the vehicle with their children. They do not know whether he is trustworthy. Even if he does not pose a threat, the kids face the emotional trauma of seeing the man’s and dying dog’s suffering up close. Adar next asks us what the narrator means by saying that “My wife trusts me/ to be the man she hopes I am.” Someone says that she hopes he will do whatever needs to be done to help the man and his dog, but I think the text suggests that she wants him to limit their involvement to shield their affluent family from the unlimited poverty and need of others. I cite textual evidence to support this interpretation, but we are in the morally uncertain realm where multiple perspectives can be supported by arguments and evidence.
We move on to the question of the larger implications of the poem for the participants’ understanding of the meaning of the work that they do. Adar asks the group about times when we have been uncertain about whether our help was “okay” in the sense of “enough,” and whether we were afraid at the time. Personal anecdotes are shared and it becomes clear that the situation in the poem resonates with the group’s experience in both our personal and professional lives, when we are confronted with overwhelming need. When Adar asks us each to share one question the poem left on our minds, I ask, “If I acknowledge the obligation to help, how can I set any principled limit to what I am willing to give?” I think it is an important question because of its role in moral psychology; it makes us afraid to come face-to-face with the boundless poverty and need in the world. I liked the fact that each person in the room was asked in turn to offer a concise question left with him or her by the text.
Like the discussion of literary and philosophical texts in higher education, the civic reflection dialogue provided an occasion for philosophical reflection. Freshmen are taught to support arguments with reasons and evidence, a skill acquired by defending a position against possible objections. By contrast, civic reflection seems to presuppose that participants already possess these skills, and, that what is important to sustaining meaningful dialogue in a community is sharing our perspectives with one another, and allowing ourselves to wonder and reflect on why others who work alongside us think and feel differently than we do.
Adar’s final question to the group is simply “would you stop?” to which each of us must answer only “yes” or “no” as we go around the room. Many of us are tempted to add caveats to our “yes” or “no” answers, but Adar lightheartedly enforces the rule. Some participants say “yes” and others say “no,” the reasons for our choices remaining mysterious. I realize that Adar’s question called on each of us to publicly avow a decision in circumstances of uncertainty, as the situation called on the narrator to do so. By refusing to let us explain the reasons for our answers, Adar prevents us from overtly judging each other’s choices, even unintentionally, by offering a justification that calls into question someone else’s.
The closing exercise of the civic reflection modeled by Adar shows both how similar and how different civic reflection is from the discussion of literary or philosophical texts in a liberal arts education. Both aim to complicate our moral certainties by exposing us to diverse perspectives, whether in the text or in each other’s interpretations of it. In a college level humanities class, it is emphasized that we must explain why we hold a given position because we must be able to explain and defend our beliefs. In a society where the public sphere offers the freedom to rigorously examine the grounds for each other’s beliefs, civic reflection reminds us that we must be able to receive each other’s perspectives without immediately voicing objections, and that our community must provide a safe space for doing so.