Leaders from The World Cafe often refer to their beloved Anne Dosher as the “Elder” and the “Guardian of the Soul of the World Café.” Anne, who is now in her 90s, wrote about conversation as a life-affirming evolutionary act. Her call to action is as compelling today as it was when she wrote this masterpiece in 2007. With gratitude for Anne, and for the partnership between The World Cafe and the Pass It On Network, we are now sharing her wise words.
Born on the northeast coast of England, of Viking and Welsh ancestry, I grew up as a granddaughter of the Empire and daughter of the Commonwealth. As a young girl in the years following the First World War, I puzzled and then grieved that the men came back so hurt—legs lost, difficulty breathing––and so many dead. How could we have done this? I wondered. Why couldn’t we have talked it through? This was a question that really mattered to me.
Later, studying the armistice conditions ending the war, it became very clear that the lack of ongoing and authentic dialogue among nations created conditions for future conflict. I determined that, when I grew up, I would study ways in which these mistakes would not be repeated.
But then, instead of peace, World War II came, and I spent almost five years in the Royal Air Force. The overarching mission was simple: survive, defeat Nazism, end holocausts, and make the world safe for democracy. In the course of wartime, I lost friends, comrades, and home. One searing experience in Europe, in which I encountered ambulatory Jews being brought out of the camps, caused me to ask my commanding officer: Sir, how could we have done this? He snapped that of course, we had not done this, they had. Yet I knew that, somehow, our human community as a whole had failed in the face of these atrocities.
In my contemplation and study of these questions, it became clear to me that every societal change process I knew of started with an informal conversation in which men and women—young or old—were witnessed and “heard into speech,” sharing their dreams and hopes for making a difference around something they cared about. In being truly seen and heard, people discovered their mutual commitment to act and were transformed.
Networks of small circles of conversation springing up around the world were bringing forth an emerging collective consciousness that yearns for a more equitable and sustainable future for all people on this planet. Since the days in which the World Café was born in Juanita and David’s living room, I recognized it as a living metaphor for what life itself had taught me and have been intimately involved in guiding its evolution.
How can we talk it through? The question that has informed all of my life choices, now lies, I believe, at the heart of our capacity to survive as a species, and to ensure that our home, this beautiful planet, survives. For me, it is the core question that informs all of our other questions. If we could converse and talk things out, we would find new ways of being together in the world. But instead, we separate, conflicts begin, and when worse comes to the worse, we go to war. Then death comes in as a walking partner, instead of life.
I get so sad when I see how we adults cut off the conversations our children have with life––with grass, trees, birds and with their own imaginations. Engagement in the conversation of life is discouraged when in fact it is the most essential of our capacities: it is embracing a spirit of conversation that connects us to all forms of life. Authentic conversation without openness is not possible. I want to suggest to practitioners, to emerging leaders and to our children, that life itself can be a conversation—with other people, with nature, and with all of life.
When we walk together, we have a choice between destructive diatribe and a constructive dialogue. We can choose life and loving connection, or separation and disintegration. Listening to each other and truly talking together—these are deep, socio-spiritual actions. Conversation is a profound evolutionary act that helps us to expand our consciousness and connect together parts and people that appear to be separated. It is one of our unique human paths to fulfillment and wholeness.
We, collectively, can make the agreement as to how we will live together, and that only happens when we talk about it. We cannot do it alone. We must look at the dilemmas of our current situation and ask, “How can we be doing this?” We need to look together at what has happened and what is happening to humanity because we would not “talk it through”!
The promise of the World Café and other dialogue approaches is that we now know that we can experience a collective intelligence and wisdom in relation to complex questions. We can, by becoming conscious participants in the conversations of our lives, increase the probability of the right choices being made—life-affirming choices. Life itself is asking us to become co-evolutionists––to be responsible for our common destiny––to re-connect with the natural world and with each other. Making the choice to participate in this way is actually a sacred act. I define sacred as that which has value in and of itself and gives meaning to the whole.
Our conversations feed our stories and the stories flow into a great new story. Humanity is being invited to learn to speak honestly, listen compassionately, truly attune, hear, and sense the depth of what is emerging in our midst. We must tend communicative space, design our Cafés, search for the deepest questions that open gateways to the future, harvest and make visible our new collective thoughts as they emerge: together we will discover creative ways of living and being together in these uncertain times.
As Elder and “guardian of the soul“ of the World Café, I embrace this work as sacred and view life itself as a conversation. When I see the care and love of Café hosts setting out tables, placing the small flowers in the center, attending to the precision of questions that matter and welcoming people at the doorway, I cherish the knowledge that our human souls and the soul of the world is being honored.
Now, with gratitude to our ancestors and blessings to all of life, I invite you to enter the gateway to the future—discovering your own best hopes along with honoring the needs of future generations, including the young and those not yet born. Welcome! Find a seat with people you haven’t met. I invite you into conversations that serve life, and bless your efforts to discover how we can talk it through—together.