Dialogue Nights #14: Appreciating the Uncertain

| Mitch Bogen
Reflections during the Dec 2019 Dialogue Nights on the Millennial Challenge

Millennials are often called “the anxious generation”—and for good reason, said Center Program Manager Lillian I in her welcoming remarks for the fifth and final Dialogue Nights of 2019. There is no shortage of reasons for this generation of young people to be in a “constant state of panic,” observed Lillian: “living paycheck to paycheck, not being able to pay rent, will I ever be able to save enough money to buy a house or have my own family, what is the purpose of my life, and the list goes on.”

Held on December 13th, the event was called “Millennial Challenge: Appreciating the Uncertain” and was attended by more than forty Boston-area university students and young professionals. It proceeded in true Dialogue Nights fashion, confronting head on an issue of deep concern for people in their 20s and 30s while engaging them in discussions that summon the potential for positive transformations. As always, a quote from Center founder Daisaku Ikeda provided inspiration.

Regardless of what storms may blow, what angry waves may threaten, you must keep shining at all times with a pure, steady light. This is what I want to say to all the young people of today who are undergoing hardship, for depending on how you bear up under hardship, the trials of today could turn out to be our most precious possessions. (Hope Is a Decision, p. 24)

Paired icebreaker during the Dec 2019 Dialogue Nights on the Millennial Challenge

With that, Lillian introduced the evening’s first icebreaker, which actually served as the first dialogue of the evening, with everyone pairing up to discuss “one challenge you face as a millennial and in what ways it is challenging for you.” After a ten-minute discussion, some of the participants shared reflections. One spoke of what he called “customer service syndrome,” in which people walk around afraid to be honest, because of all the online scrutiny we all face. Others shared points relating to challenges posed by our digital lives. One said that she grew up using social media without knowing any of its dangers, but even though she knows them now she’s too hooked into that environment to stop engaging with it. Another spoke of the pressure of making sense of things and “creating your own narrative” in a world characterized by “an inundation of information.” Related was another’s comment that social media platforms like Instagram create pressure to feel like you are “using your time well.”

The second icebreaker dialogue asked participants to gather into groups of four to discuss “one thing that makes them feel uncertain and how they usually respond to that uncertainty.” One theme that emerged during brief sharing pertained to trying to balance practical matters of maintaining a solid job while also finding a way or feeling free to explore other options that might be fulfilling. For example, one participant is a programmer but would really like to develop as an actor. In this vein, another participant questioned how much each of us really wants to change if we can’t commit to making it happen. Another mentioned a subtle kind of uncertainty that might occur in the daily course of things. Sometimes when interacting with someone, she “puts something out there” hoping for or expecting a certain kind of response, but not getting it. Learning to sit with that kind of discomfort is a challenge, she said.

The Center’s Events and Publications Coordinator, Anri Tanabe, introduced the next dialogue activity, saying they would now “focus on the positive aspects of uncertainty.” She said that they could build off the topics they explored in the previous dialogue or choose something easier to deal with. If finding the positive aspects seems difficult, that’s okay, she said, since “shifting the way we think about something takes practice; but the more we do it, the easier it can become.” Anri said that for herself, when uncertainty brings a “gut feeling” of being “overwhemed and afraid,” she sticks with it, consciously asking herself, “OK, what is good about this?” Often she ends up actually being excited about her prospects. To focus the dialogue, she offered this quote from the SGI Quarterly (July 2009):

While the admonition to ‘count one’s blessings’ may seem trite, in times of trial a sense of gratitude for what is good in our lives can ground us and provide a basis for meeting and overcoming difficulties. In this sense, gratitude is the key to unlocking a more open and rewarding perspective on life.

Building on this quote, Anri asked participants to discuss two questions in groups of four: 1) What are some positive aspects that come with the feeling of uncertainty? 2) What does appreciating the uncertain mean to you? Five minutes before the end of this 25 minute dialogue session, Anri asked groups to jot down a list of things they are grateful for. Most of the ideas that emerged during open sharing revolved around the benefits of getting out of your “comfort zone,” including entering on a path to new knowledge, increasing your capacity to change, and, quite simply, making life more exciting. Regarding this last point, one participant added that life is especially exciting when you enter into uncertainty with another person. Another benefit was that uncertainty can also help each of us “develop self awareness of what we need” as a person.

The final dialogue session drew inspiration from the Daisaku Ikeda quote shared earlier that “regardless of what storms may blow,” if “you bear up under hardship” with resolve and positivity, the “trials of today could turn out to be your most precious possessions.” Commenting on this insight, Anri said, “We feel that this quote gives us power to create, or begin to imagine, an alternate perspective than the one we may be holding now; even if things are difficult today, when we look back, it is possible that it will take on a different meaning if we don’t allow ourselves to give up in this moment.” To guide this final small group discussion, Anri asked participants to respond to two fill-in-the-blank style questions: I am uncertain about (blank); but I appreciate (blank). I am proud to be a millennial because I can (blank).

As is the new Dialogue Nights tradition, the evening ended with an “open mic” session, moderated by the Center’s Office and Program Assistant, Preandra Noel, in which participants could share concluding thoughts, impressions, and inspiration in a free flowing way. Here are condensed versions of some of their open mic offerings:

  • The first to speak said she was “grateful just to be here and to think about things that are so important to us.” I’m usually “very anxious,” she added, so “it was nice to pause and think about the positive aspects of uncertainty.
  • Next to speak was a woman who agreed that she “was just grateful to be here.” This evening has inspired me to “go with the flow more,” to welcome “the unexpected,” and to “listen to my spirit more,” she said.
  • Following up on the anxiety theme, a woman observed how her generation feels “the constant need to be doing something.” Her resolution, then, “is to relearn how to be bored and to be okay with boredom. Boredom doesn’t mean I’m failing in life.”
  • A young man built on this theme, observing that “a lot of creativity comes out of boredom.” He also returned to the challenges and opportunities of living while being “inundated with information” and opposing points of view. This gives us the chance to “recreate and reform our narrative over and over,” creating a “mosaic” effect.
  • “What am I proud of as a Millennial?” the next man to speak asked rhetorically. “Well, not Facebook and Snapchat!” Actually, he said, “we don’t know yet what we will be proud of” when we look back on these days, he said, suggesting a range of opportunities.
  • Millennials are the first generation to be confronted with so many things demanding choice, observed another man. Our goal, he said, is to figure out how to “decipher” this situation and “understand why we feel so anxious.” Then, when we learn to handle this challenge without fear, we can take what we have learned and “pass it on” to the next generation.
  • The woman who shared earlier about going with the flow was moved to share one more time. I have always been the one “to encourage others,” she said, so I’m so grateful to have the opportunity tonight to be on the receiving end and feel “so much light and encouragement,” so much nourishment for my “heart and soul.”
  • The last participant, a man visiting from Canada by way of Australia where he is studying, explained how hope emerges when you grasp the law of exponential influence, which goes like this: Each of us has interacted with and influenced at least one hundred people, and those hundred have also each influenced another hundred, and on and on. Before too long you will have indirectly reached an astounding number people, perhaps even a billion people, who are potentially influenced by your initial action. He closed by saying he “truly believes” that ultimately, and in keeping with the example of this evening, the people of the world will “come together and collaborate.”

After thanking all the speakers, Preandra turned the mic over to Lillian I, who offered some closing thoughts. After first sharing the crucial information that there was plenty more food left to partake in, Lillian thanked everyone for “coming out on a cold winter evening” for the final Dialogue Nights of the year, adding that “your participation and willingness to engage in dialogue means so much to us and we are constantly learning from you all!” After noting how she is inspired by Mr. Ikeda’s conviction that a “rising tide of friendship within the younger generation cannot fail to transform society,” Lillian concluded with her own optimistic vision for our shared future: “I hope we were able to form new friendships tonight, deepen our sense of appreciation for our challenges, and feel a sense of mission as Millennials to create a better world for ourselves and for future generations!”