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Challenging conversations are by definition difficult. They are issues that spark emotions. They are explorations of uncharted waters: it is uncomfortable entering a discussion when we don't know what the conclusion could possibly be, even if it matters.

There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures which shows a conversation gone awry that helps us think about complex conversations. It's found at the beginning of Exodus 17.

This comes after the Exodus from Egypt as the people have traveled deep into the wilderness. As much as the people suffered under the oppression in Egypt, the wilderness challenged their hope and their faith. In that empty land, they got hungry. They accused Moses of bringing them out of Egypt just to let them die of starvation. In response, God provided manna each day.

They journeyed on. Deep in the wilderness, they come to a place where there is no water. It is too far to turn back. Despite the miracles they have seen--the plagues, crossing the Red Sea, the manna they eat every day--they doubt. They are too thirsty to hope. They fear they will die.

The people come to Moses to demand water. They at least identify the underlying issue, but they do it with fear in their voices and doubt. Moses asks why they do not trust God. He calls them quarrelsome.

Calling someone quarrelsome never helps the conversation. It raises the emotional stakes. It dismisses the person with the issue as irrational.

In this situation, Moses is likely not at his best. Moses is thirsty and uncomfortable himself. Still, if he had responded with something like, "God will take care of this. We have seen so many ways that God protected us before. Let me go and ask for water." The people might have told him to hurry up, but at least it would be a constructive conversation.

Instead, Moses accuses them of being difficult. He does not honour their need. The people get angry. "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?"

The people are not being fair. Moses saved their lives by getting them out of Egypt. They were eager to come with him. It's just that at this moment they are uncomfortable and afraid. They are starting to get angry. While this reaction is understandable, the accusation does not help the conversation. The conversation shifts to Moses' leadership rather than water.

Facing their anger, Moses is upset and afraid. He goes to God but does not ask for water. Instead he says, "What am I supposed to do with these people? They are ready to stone me." This is not what the people said. Moses has upped the stakes again. And notice, he does not ask for anything for the people but implies God needs to protect him. His words also imply that God should judge the people not help them.

God answers with water. God addresses the underlying issue. God ignores the anger, the accusations, the way fear and thirst have made Moses and the people quarrelsome. God gives what they need and lets them work out their relationships together as they go on.

The conversation about the need for water got way off track. Fear does this. We don't like being afraid. It is easy to let fear make us angry. When fear and anger enter the conversation, it is hard to get at the underlying issues.

Conversations about covid 19 have been like this. Think of the conversations you were part of in January, in February, now. They have been all over the map. The Chinese were accused of being inept. The concern about a world-wide spread was named absurd. There were comparisons that claimed Sars was, and ordinary influenza is, more dangerous.

Now as restrictions kick in, there is fear and panic buying of toilet paper, a commodity not related to the disease. There is anger at the enforced school closures. There is worry as the stock market tumbles and businesses suffer. And some people still argue that all of this is an over reaction.

Meanwhile, some are asking what can we do. There are constant emails about what companies are doing. These make me smile as the fees waived are an attempt to keep customers, but things like waiving data overages are actually a help. Restaurants are learning to do take out. People are sharing ideas about how to appreciate the time.

For me the reminder that challenging conversations are hard is useful. In a fluid situation, it is hard to keep the conversation on topic, to judge well and to speak with wisdom rather than fear.

One of the best workshops I have been to about addressing racism in Canada was called "Courageous conversations about race." The leader talked about teaching moments, about not walking away from a racist comment or policy but learning how to engage in the conversation with respect to move the person, the institution, the community, toward equity and respect.

In Collingwood a couple weeks ago, there was a workshop about how to facilitate conversations about climate change. That is another difficult conversation that we have to learn to have.

And over the next few weeks we are going to have to figure out how to have careful conversations about covid 19. Not in fear. Not in anger at the decisions being made. In hope that there will not be the deaths in our vulnerable population that are occurring elsewhere.

Cathy Hird lives on the shore of Georgian Bay

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