Come back to the Great Table
Dan Sehlhorst | Thursday, August 28, 2014
I am seated at the Great Table, and no one else is here. It is a table of inexpressible magnificence — sturdy, elegant and well-polished. Intricately hand-carved along its prodigious length by illustrious artisans of old, the table is set with a feast of such grandeur that it parallels Aslan’s Table in C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
Surrounding the table are handsome, luxurious chairs — finer than the Throne of Solomon — numbering more than any mortal could count, enough for every man and woman to join in comfort and dignity that would befit an emperor.
The Great Table has been visited by the preeminent architects of human thought — monarchs and aristocrats, philosophers and theologians, generals and judges, dictators and activists, Presidents and preachers, Popes and sages, artists and musicians, writers and poets, journalists and economists, scientists and mathematicians, professors and students. At the table, men and women have debated grand theories, analyzed discoveries, set policy, engineered social change, explored faith and made momentous decisions.
Dining together is an intimate experience, one that literature has always recognized as a symbol of trust and fellowship. But today, unfortunately, the table is unoccupied, as it often has been over the course of its history.
What is this table, you ask? It isn’t the Round Table of Arthurian legend, but it should be similarly revered. It is the metaphorical table at which men and women hold dialogue with humility, compassion, curiosity and sincerity. Regardless of topic, the Great Table demands the perspective of all to be shared with integrity and purpose.
The Great Table is present in each of our dorm rooms, in each classroom and hallway, in state houses and congressional hearings, at kitchen tables and church youth groups.
Many of you may be thinking, who is this person to make such an absurd and self-aggrandizing claim, that he is the only one at the table? You may be thinking, “I am sitting at the table, why have you not noticed me?”
The reality is that I am not at the table most of the time, either. Regardless of our best intentions, we all forsake our seat more often than not. We each fall victim to confirmation bias, and we each find ourselves disparaging those who disagree with us, if only in our thoughts. We exaggerate our claims and twist facts to bolster our case. While in the presence of like-minded company, we validate our beliefs as the only logical conclusion and construct frameworks that prohibit any variation from our concurring identity. Worst yet, we forget an obligation to comport ourselves with love and respect.
For example, in the recent minimum wage debate, neither camp seems willing to admit the harsh reality that there will be winners and losers, at least in the short term. On one side, it is a raise for America; alternatively, it is a recipe for massive job losses. The actuality probably lies somewhere on the spectrum between these claims and certainly encompasses a much broader and deeper set of consequences. Furthermore, both sides like to characterize the other as malevolent culture destroyers bent on hurting someone, when exercising some empathy would reveal that most people do hope to achieve the common good.
How then does one participate in balanced and fair discussion? How does one find common ground? How does one realize that there may be more than one answer to a problem? It is our duty as citizens of the world to sit at the Great Table for every conversation in which we participate.
Overconfidence in our self-perceived flawless worldview allows us to accept whatever sleight of hand is necessary with the facts to reinforce our opinions. What’s more, this overconfidence can lead us to abandon intellectual integrity. There is no justification for defending one’s opinion regardless of the facts, and there is no dignity in failing to articulate one’s beliefs. There is balance that must be struck.
Personally, I believe that there is absolute truth and that, as a man of God, I should seek that truth in my life. However, I also know that there exist many debates in which there are no right or wrong answers. Problems are complicated. Issues are differentiated and ingrained. To understand a subject, context is king and good faith analysis is essential.
I would like to take this opportunity to call each and every member of the Notre Dame community to come to the table this year. Let’s engage in conversation. Let’s reexamine our assumptions, assess norms and dislodge groupthink. More importantly, let’s confront tough issues and acknowledge the holes in our reasoning. I am committed to intellectual honesty in my columns and discussions this year. In addition, I aspire to conduct myself with a loving carriage that facilitates understanding and dialogue in pursuit of the common good.
Today, the need to come together in communion at the Great Table is crucial as ever, and an empathetic posture in conversation can make all of the difference in bringing others back to the table. As such, the byline of this column, “We’ve Lost Our Quorum,” envisions a conversation resting upon values of love, empathy, trust and honesty that resound deeply in the Notre Dame ethos.
So come, join me at the table.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.