I believe that it takes great courage to speak your truth and that it takes an equal amount to allow others to speak theirs.
Last winter, I attended the “Weather Report” in Casper, Wyoming, hosted by environmental writer, Terry Tempest Williams, who was serving as Artist in Residence at the University of Wyoming. Williams created opportunities for people throughout the state to gather and report on the current “climate” of their lives. We met in a classroom and arranged the chairs in a circle, so we could see each other’s faces. Williams began by asking each of us to say our name and to answer the question, “What keeps you up at night?” We were to listen deeply as others spoke, without offering comment or criticism.
When it was my turn, I said, “This week, what keeps me up at night is how similar the Wyoming prairie is to the Tibetan plateau.” I’d heard on the radio that the Chinese railroad was opened into Tibet. On a trip in 2005, the Tibetans had voiced their concern to me about the completion of the railroad. The western Tibetans feared that their land would be raped of its minerals and the fragile ecosystem destroyed. I concluded by saying, “When any ecosystem is destroyed, it is a loss for us all.”
Across the circle sat a state senator and an oil company man, but I did not know them yet. Others shared concerns for the lives of animals, the environment and our nation’s image in the world. When it was the oilman’s turn to speak, his face reddened with emotion. He said, “You say we rape the land? I didn’t see any bicycles in the rack outside. You use our products. We are good people. We work hard. Give us a break!”
I felt caught in a child’s “telephone” game. I spoke of Tibet and a Wyoming man was offended. I wondered, “What does the Chinese government hear?” It was a powerful example of how I could be heard and misunderstood in an instant. Or, maybe I was perfectly understood. Such disconnects are almost enough to shut me up completely, but that would be the death of more than just a conversation.
Following the “Weather Report,“ the senator and oilman approached Williams. The senator said, “Tonight wasn’t as bad as we’d expected.” They told her they’d demanded that the university president fire her, after she’d been quoted in the newspaper, saying something disparaging about the oil industry. The senator said, “I’ve changed my mind about it.” The oilman added, “The president of the university has your back.” Williams was visibly shaken, feeling that her life, not her job, was in danger.
I believe that it takes great courage to speak your truth. I believe that every day “We, the people” must summon the courage to speak and to listen, in order to defend the cornerstone of democracy: our freedom of speech.