"Third things"

Excerpted from A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer


In Western culture, we often seek truth through confrontation. But our headstrong ways of charging at truth scare the shy soul away. If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached 'on the slant.' I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.


We achieve intentionality in a circle of trust by focusing on an important topic. We achieve indirection by exploring that topic metaphorically, via a poem, a story, a piece of music, or a work of art that embodies it. I call these embodiments 'third things' because they represent neither the voice of the facilitator nor the voice of a participant. They have voices of their own, voices that tell the truth about a topic but, in the manner of metaphors, tell it on the slant. Mediated by a third thing, truth can emerge from, and return to, our awareness at whatever pace and depth we are able to handle — sometimes inwardly in silence, sometimes aloud in community — giving the shy soul the protective cover it needs.


Rightly used, a third thing functions a bit like the old Rorschach inkblot test, evoking from us whatever the soul wants us to attend to. Mediated by a good metaphor, the soul is more likely than usual to have something to say. But the fact will count for nothing if we fail to recognize that the soul is speaking or fail to pay attention to what it says.


Conversations in which we speak and hear truth on the slant are always at risk because they defy conventional norms. As we explore a May Sarton poem, for example, we may discover (as I once did) that a member of the group did his doctoral dissertation on Sarton. After listening to people talk about the poem for a while, he proclaimed, "What you have been saying is not what Sarton had in mind!' Instantly, the circle became unsafe and this 'expert' tried to dominate it with 'objective' knowledge, intimidating people who had been speaking from their hearts.


In such a moment, the facilitator must move gently — but quickly and firmly — to make everyone feel safe again, including, if possible, the person who made things unsafe. I recall saying something along these lines: 'What Sarton had in mind is certainly an interesting topic, but it is not our topic here. Our focus is on how this poem intersects our own lives and evokes our own experience. I invited all of you to speak about the poem in that spirit, and I invite you to continue to do so.'


But keeping the circle open to subjective viewpoints does not mean that 'anything goes,' another way of saying that we must be intentional as well as invitational. A third thing, in the hands of a good facilitator, provides the boundaries that can help keep our exploration in that creative space between aimless meandering and a forced march toward some predetermined goal.