For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep

– William Stafford, “A Ritual To Read to Each Other”

Recently I had a breakthrough in a longstanding conflict with a close friend. The situation had been eating me up; we were both walking through it on eggshells, trying not to spur any further conflict, and we were not too successful. The issue at stake is unimportant. What it came down to was, she had a rich inner life and a deep sense of spirituality that we had never spoken about. Perhaps I had always sensed that it was there. Something, certainly, drew us together to begin with. But each of us, having learned through bitter experience that trying to put words to anything outside of ordinary, consensual reality is a very risky venture, spoke to the other in the language of the surface of the world. We were logical, intellectual, caring and problem-solving. We listened actively. We spoke safely. We translated for each other.

I have always chafed at having to do that translation. I go through a series of negotiations in each new relationship, testing the waters to learn where it is and is not safe to go, pushing the boundaries and hoping the person I’m speaking to will not, as my friend put it, prescribe an antipsychotic and suggest that I should not be allowed to work with children. My insistence on safety is the very reason, as Stafford put it, that “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.”

But the question remains: How do we engage with people in such a way as to honor the possibility that they do not require such delicate and limiting translations, still protecting ourselves by acknowledging the probability that they do?

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