Dialogue Nights Returns as In-Person Gathering

By Mitch Bogen

It’s unusual to be able to experience something fresh 22 events into an ongoing series, but that was the case with the recent Dialogue Nights. On July 29, and after two years and six virtual events, nearly 30 Boston-area university students and young professionals returned to the Ikeda Center for an evening of joyful, rejuvenating dialogue, in the process experiencing what one participant called a “fun, real, connecting space.”

In her introduction to the event, which was called “Revitalizing Our Relationships: What Does That Look Like Now?,” Center Program Manager Lillian I said that planning sessions with the youth committee revealed that the forced isolation of the pandemic caused us to value our relationships even as we struggled “to navigate the different relationships in our lives over the past two years,” including “friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships, work relationships.” Some of these “deepened,” she said, “and others fell apart.” Beyond these pandemic-related concerns, added Lillian, the question of how to build and maintain “healthy relationships” was an important topic for her and the Ikeda Center youth committee as they planned for the event. Also important was this insight from Daisaku Ikeda: “It may seem easier to remain closed off in our private world, but we will not grow as a person. Alone and isolated, our true potentiality cannot shine. Interaction with others enriches our lives.” With that, she left everyone with the hope that “tonight we can share our own stories and experiences and leave feeling a little more hopeful and confident in how to revitalize our different relationships, our lives, and our world.”

July 2022 Dialogue Nights

Following Lillian’s welcome, the Center’s Outreach Manager Anri Tanabe led two icebreaker activities. For one of the activities, Anri asked attendees to find a partner, preferably someone they don’t know, and discuss the following: 1) What are some ways your relationships have changed during the course of the pandemic? 2) What is one thing that you are finding challenging about your relationships at this time?

After the icebreakers, Ikeda Center youth committee members Mary Schletzbaum and Jason (Jay) Henriksen shared their own experiences about how they have been navigating their relationships, including their friendships, family relationships, and romantic relationships.  Speaking first, Mary cited a quote from Dr. Sarah Wider as particularly inspirational for her when she thinks about how to maximize the potential for positive experiences when dialoguing with people of all perspectives and kinds.

Too often, where words could celebrate and realize the richness of possibility in human communities, they become barriers and even weapons. When we fail to learn who the person we are conversing with truly is, we run the risk of creating divisions or of silencing another.

Reading this, said Mary, made her think about the many times she has become “defensive and judgmental” when speaking with people such as family members with whom she disagrees. One thing she has found to be helpful is to not just focus on “that one thing they said” but to focus instead on trying to just “really see who that person is,” a person with “many sides” to them and with a wide range of experiences.

During his remarks, Jay, who started participating in Ikeda Center events during the pandemic, shared a quote from Mr. Ikeda that he felt embodied the heart of his experiences:

The bamboo groves of autumn are gorgeous. Each bamboo tree stands independently, growing straight and tall toward the sky. Yet in the ground, out of sight, the roots of each tree are interconnected… In the same way, true friendship is not a relationship of dependence but of independence. It is the enduring bond that connects self-reliant individuals, comrades who share the same commitment, on a spiritual dimension.

These thoughts were particularly meaningful for Jay, since he has struggled with relationships more than anything in his life. The result, he said, was that he “clung to anyone who accepted me because I always feared they’d be the last.” During the time of the pandemic though, he was forced to pause, reflect, and work on himself. He learned that the key to forming healthy, solid relationships actually lies within himself. As a result of the inner work he has done during this time, he was happy to report that he has made great strides learning “to be an active participant in social dynamics rather than a shadow waiting for permission to move.”

Before introducing the small group discussion activity, Lillian offered heartfelt thanks to Mary and Jay for “sharing with such vulnerability.” To guide their dialogues, she asked the participants to consider three questions:

  • Is there something that resonated with you in Jason and Mary’s reflections?
  • In reading these quotes by Daisaku Ikeda that were shared by Mary and Jason, what comes to mind for you when thinking about your own relationships?
  • What does revitalizing and building healthy relationships look like for you right now? 

During share back, participants indicated many points of resonance with Mary and Jay. Echoing Jay’s talk, one person said that “Before the pandemic, I used to want to please people and have them like me. I think during the pandemic, I learned that I just need to be true to myself… Slowly I started just being who I am,” adding that “just being here today made me think of it so thank you for this opportunity to reflect.” Another spoke of the “internal restriction” many young people feel when engaging with others “where we don’t want to take up space.” However, for this participant, the “first step in becoming authentic is actually to take up a little bit of space and I think that entails a certain amount of vulnerability.” Picking up on this theme, another participant said that “when we are comfortable with who we are, when we are confident in ourselves, that actually is also like the door that can open up really beautiful relationships. Because then we are not going to be as quick to judge others because we are more sure of who we are and where we are coming from.”

As a closing discussion activity, the Center’s Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel invited attendees to find the same partner they met during the icebreaker activity and share with each other one relationship in their life they want to revitalize after attending Dialogue Nights and how they might go about it.  

After several minutes of paired discussion, Ikeda Center Executive Director Kevin Maher offered some concluding thoughts. Building on Lillian’s opening words, Kevin said that during the planning sessions, “many of us” agreed that “while we all long for connection, especially with friends and family we haven’t seen in some time, it has become easier to avoid those relationships. In fact, in many ways it has felt like we’re now relearning how to connect.” He also shared a personal episode from the pandemic that really forced him to see how easy it is to prejudge people and downplay the possibility of meaningful relationship. As it happened, early in the pandemic, Kevin suffered a broken hip and was forced to convalesce for a significant time. Surprisingly, one of the people that was most present and helpful for him during this time was someone he had “taken for granted.” As their relationship grew, Kevin wondered if this potential might exist in other relationships.

He then offered a quote from Daisaku Ikeda illustrating why it's unwise to downplay or belittle the possibility of friendship.

Quite often, the encouragement and influence of friends spur us toward self-improvement.  We are inspired to lead fulfilling lives and to create a better world—to work together with our friends toward that goal. Having good friends is like being equipped with a powerful auxiliary engine. When we encounter a steep hill or an obstacle, we can encourage one another and find the strength to keep pressing vigorously forward.

Reflecting back on what is now five years of Dialogue Nights it has been the “genuine friendships that have been formed by the participants together and with the center staff” that has made these gatherings so special. “At a time when the world can feel uncertain or hopeless,” he concluded, “it is through connection and our relationships, that we continue to re-ignite our hope and joy. As was expressed so powerfully tonight, this requires that we continue to revitalize and refresh our relationships on a regular basis.” 

Thank you to the Ikeda Center program team for the contributions to the reporting of this event.

 

 

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