During a bleak, cold winter in New York City, a park is occupied by thousands who stand there day and night for weeks. Nobody knows precisely what these occupiers represent, but people are mesmerized by them. Not just the city, but the country and beyond. Articles appear in papers around the world as people react with mixed emotions spanning surprise, admiration, ridicule, frustration, pride, and even fear.
I am talking about The Gates: 7,500 bright orange fabric and steel sculptures erected by artists Christo and Jeanne Claude in 2005 that serpentined 23 miles of Central Park’s walking paths.
I loved The Gates. The exhibit was visually stunning, creating the sensation of a river flowing through the snow-covered landscape.
But what I loved most about them — perhaps their greatest impact — was the conversations they sparked. I would guess that no other art exhibit ever got as much popular attention as The Gates. People who would never otherwise think much about it were pondering and discussing the question “What is art?”
Sparking Conversations. That, too, is perhaps the greatest impact of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Protestors have been criticized for their lack of clarity. What, precisely, are they protesting? From what I could tell when I was at Zuccotti Park, it was everything from corporate greed to unemployment to tax loopholes to foreclosures to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to specific companies to bank ATM fees to unfair distribution of wealth, and a lot more.
But, in this case, lack of clarity might be something to celebrate instead of criticize. Because, the truth is, we all have more questions than answers.
People are suffering. Many are out of jobs. Many have lost money and homes and hope. Many look to the future with uncertainty. What’s the solution? What should the protestors be asking for?
I don’t know.
Which is a good answer, really. Because, in complex situations, to jump too quickly to answers can create more damage than good. No one has clear answers because there are no clear answers.
How tempting it is to point a finger, to blame, to tear something down. Certainly some lean in that direction. But as a movement, the protests have asked questions more than they have pointed fingers. What is fair? What do we value in our country? What is a right? Whose voice is heard? What is the impact of the work we do? Whom do we affect in the choices we make? What do we stand for? What is important? Do we value ourselves and each other based on what we earn? What we buy? Who we are? Maybe the greatest impact of the protest is the conversations that they are sparking.
People who would never otherwise think much about it are pondering and discussing the question “What do we stand for as a country?”
We didn’t ask that question in the same way during times of plenty when the money was flowing and life felt easier. Things were no more fair three years ago than they are now. What we stood for was no more clear, and how we spent our money was no more righteous.
But three years ago, when we were buying our houses and getting our loans and working in our jobs and watching our investments grow, we weren’t asking those questions. No, three years ago, we had all the answers.
So I celebrate the honesty and the courage behind the lack of clarity. I celebrate the people who aren’t jumping to quick answers that make people feel better, but ultimately don’t fix anything. Because that’s the last thing we need right now. It’s what got us here in the first place and it will only make things worse.
What we need right now is to have the questions heard, the anger acknowledged, and the suffering recognized.
What we need is listening. Open-hearted, compassionate, courageous listening.
Which, as I talked about in my article last week, How to Really Listen, is much harder than speaking.
Speaking only requires that we have an opinion. But listening requires that we hold our fears at bay long enough to feel the suffering of others. Listening means not getting defensive — even if we disagree with what someone is saying, even if they are attacking us. Listening is not the same as agreeing. It’s acknowledging and respecting the validity of someone else’s feeling.
Speaking is the language of the intellect. If we are in an intellectual conversation and someone isn’t making clear sense, we can correct them, we can share facts, we can prove our point.
But these protests aren’t about the intellect; they are about emotion. And listening is the language of emotion. The right response to anger and frustration and sadness and loss of hope isn’t to require its justification. It’s not to disprove the emotions or resolve them. The right response is to hear the emotions. And make it clear that they’re heard.
That type of listening — and the conversations that go along with it — is exactly what we need right now. It’s what keeps the blame at bay and draws forth collaborative solutions.
For me, it’s also the greatest lesson of the protests: it’s worth talking about something even when the solution isn’t obvious. It’s worth raising an issue, even before fully understanding it. It’s worth expressing emotion, even without the clarity of a solution.
Because sometimes, especially in complex situations, the conversation can be 90% of the solution.
In the midst of that grey, cold winter in 2005, The Gates splashed our city with color, and made it hard not to pay attention to art. Now, as the winter of 2011 is fast approaching, the Occupy Wall Street Protests are making it hard not to pay attention to the pain and suffering of many.
The protests — and our response to them — might just be the beginning of a conversation that will make us all better off. A conversation led by questions more than answers, by listening more than judging. And then, maybe, after really hearing each other, we’ll collectively come up with a solution that has the potential to really solve something.