In Facebook-land, there are lots of kitten pictures, some interesting articles, the curious ‘suggested posts’, and a lot of arguing. Sadly, even amongst like-minded, well-meaning people, these arguments rarely seem to get anywhere, and more often than anyone would like they devolve into name-calling.
I’m a frequent participant — some might even say “cause” — of these vigorous debates, and while I refrain from name calling I’m frequently fascinated by the seeming futility of them.
Truth exists, and supposedly it is what we think we have and are trying to share when we engage with someone else in an argument/discussion/insult-fest. Why are we so ineffective in sharing it then? Well, our first inclination is to blame the other person – they’re idiots, they can’t read, they don’t listen, they’re stubborn; whatever. Now, there may be occasions when that is the case, but I can’t help but think that in the vast majority of cases there are things I’m doing, or not doing, that contribute to the stalemate.
The first thing that occurs to me is that there are few things I like more than my own opinion. Everyone does, of course, and rightly so. It would be a strange world where people thought things but didn’t really like their ideas. We should believe what we believe and with conviction. As Chesterton says, “open-mindedness” is not something to shoot for. “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
So in a sense I am right to think I am right, and so is my co-discussionist. So that can’t be the problem. The problem is how much I like or need to be right, or put more precisely how much I like or need the other person to know I am right. This necessarily requires them to admit they are wrong. In public. If this is my aim in a discussion, it’s no wonder I make no progress – I’m not exploring the truth with someone. I am seeking dominance over them. When I find myself slipping in to this mode of discussing, I like to go back and count the times I have publicly admitted being wrong. Funnily enough, it doesn’t take long to count to zero.
Second, when I am truly honest with myself, I have to admit that I like to be perceived well almost as much as I like to be right, perhaps even more. I like to look smart. I want others to think I am clever. And, most importantly, smarter and cleverer than the person with whom I am arguing. And sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, if it comes at the expense of the person with whom I am speaking, I’m okay with that.
So right there I have two huge obstacles between the other and the truth I’m trying to convey, and they are me. My desire to been seen as right is a disservice to the truth I hold and want to communicate, because I’m silently expecting the other to do something I know to be almost impossible – admit in real-time that they are wrong. Who does that? Has truth ever been appropriated that way? I sincerely doubt it.
In my own experience, say with advice my parents gave me, it took years for the “penny to drop.” They offered it over and over, in more or more compelling and convincing ways, but I needed time and space to internalize it, to become at home with it. Why should I expect anything different from someone else?
And my desire to be thought of a certain way? That’s just pure pride, and oftentimes it forces me to abandon the truth I am so attached to in order to save face, to win the battle of perception in the eyes of onlookers. When I indulge in that pursuit, I probably do more disservice to the truth than if I had just stayed quiet.
So there I am, the little idiot I am, working furiously to share the truth, only to discover I am its biggest obstacle. What to do? It would be going three steps in the wrong direction to try and go back to being “open-minded” or more accurately “empty-headed”.
Stop trying to share the truth altogether? If I were able to do that, I’d have to conclude that either it wasn’t a very important truth (Tiger will NOT pass Jack!) or I didn’t really believe it. Truth of any importance, once grasped, screams out to be shared. So what then? Well, if I’m the obstacle, it seems obvious I must figure out how to get myself out of the way without diminishing the truth.
First, I can just work on eliminating the obvious things, the ” personal pride” things; stop name calling (check), be more polite (okay), don’t use the second person singular when I make my points (got it), try to forget the audience, don’t take the bait if it’s offered by the other party, etc.. Those are all certainly good things to do, and while they might help keep me out of knock-down, drag-out fights, it won’t necessarily help the truth be received.
And what else? Well, I can detach from the truth. Meaning, I can detach my self-importance and self-worth from the truth and its reception. After all, it isn’t my truth. It’s just truth that I have been lucky enough to discover. It doesn’t need my help to be true, nor will its veracity be damaged if someone doesn’t immediately accept it. And more than likely, I haven’t fully discovered it yet either.
If I can keep those things in mind, and constantly remind myself that the other party isn’t an adversary but a person to explore with, then I’m free – free to stop being offended; free to share my journey with them; free to focus on the person with whom I am speaking, not “the point” I want to make.
The most important truths in life, the ones worth discussing and trying to share, are never truly received through water-tight syllogisms, crystal-clear doctrines, or the power of perfect arguments. Those are the tools for “being right”, not for being effective in changing hearts or minds. Truth is shared between people, from person to person, even, if I might risk being “cheesy”, from heart to heart.
If I can be the first to make myself vulnerable, to let go of my need to be right, to let go of my desire to be thought clever, to let go of “MY truth” and just enjoy it and offer it as the gift it is, then I might have a chance of making a connection with a person, and then truth might be discovered together over time. At the very least I won’t be in its way.
But if I don’t or can’t, then I shouldn’t expect much progress, just more of the same. If I really care about sharing the truth, if I want to stop going to war, if I want to disarm my worst ‘enemy’, I’ve got to disarm myself.