Sunday, November 16, 2014

a real post + recommended reading of the day

Montana, Whitefish. That's where I am right now. A town ringed by high mountains. A mountain town. Lori's family's homestead. Her parents live here; she and her siblings visit often. There are horses in the pasture, grandkids running around underfoot, and pretty much everyone in the family is a musician. I'm glad to be here.

Something on my mind is something Lori and I talked about on the drive here (a drive we did in two days, due to the 3 munchkins) which is: Is it possible to actually connect with a person you disagree with radically? Or even, that you disagree with very much, if not necessarily radically? Like, let's not tackle quite yet whether any of us could connect with ISIS or the head of the KKK. My question for the time being is more along the lines of: is it possible for a mainstream evangelical Christian to have a genuine, bonafide, non-debate-type conversation with a, say, non-Christian, sex-positive, neo-hippie? (Is neo-hippie a thing? I feel like it's a thing.) And just to hike up the stakes a wee bit, let's say the Christian was firmly opposed to "premarital sex" and the neo-hippie was firmly opposed to what s/he thought of as a "sex-negative attitude." Would it be possible for these two people to honestly listen to each other? Would it be possible for them to honestly talk and listen without trying to change each other's minds? What's going on between humans when we're trying to change each other's minds, each other's beliefs and actions? What's going on between humans when we're engaged in listening to each other's stories?

Lori has the radical notion--and I really do mean that; it's a radical notion--that people should listen to each other's stories. Rather than debate each other.

The problem, I think, is that a lot of people disagree with Lori on this. So how're you going to convince those people that stories are better than yelling, without debating with them in order to convince them? Maybe we don't need to convince them. Maybe there is no "them." Maybe that's Lori's whole point.

Another radical idea that Lori and I together came up with yesterday as we were entering the Flathead Valley was the radical idea of asking people to tell the story of what led them to believe the thing they believe. So like, there's the thing you believe (that racism is systemic; that capitalism is inherently exploitive; that the USA is the best country on earth; that abortion is always wrong) and then there's the story of how and why you came to believe that thing. People have reasons for believing the things they believe--and I'm not talking about ideological reasons. Do you believe abortion is always wrong because you had an aunt who died from a botched abortion? Because you had an abortion yourself and always regretted it? Because you know someone whose mother almost aborted them and then didn't, at the last minute? Because you went to anti-abortion rallies where pictures were shown of babies suffering, and it broke your heart? Because you ran into some pro-choice people who weren't compassionate towards anti-abortion folks? Because you once had an STD and went to Planned Parenthood and weren't treated with respect?

The reasons we believe the things we believe--those reasons are really fucking important. They're often what the story is really about.

I remember a couple years ago, on my Owls & Angels blog, a number of my readers & I got into an intense conversation about whether spanking children was ever okay. Many powerful arguments were made. Many passionate things were said. The conversation lasted weeks, if not months. Then, a couple years later, three of the main readers of that blog and I were visiting each other in person. The four of us sat around a livingroom talking about that blog conversation in spanking. All four of us had been spanked as kids. And, probably because we were in person and not online, the conversation got quite personal and we started telling the stories of what the spanking was like for each of us. One person, who online had been heatedly opposed to spanking, had had her pants and underwear pulled down, and was spanked with a belt on her bare legs and bum. So when she heard the word "spanking" that's what she thought of. Another person, who online had been a bit more moderate (spanking is mostly wrong, but sometimes maybe okay), had never experienced anything more extreme than a light swat on the hand. So when she was saying "spanking" was okay, that's what she was talking about.

The life experiences that led us to where we are are, as I said, really fucking important. I remember sitting in that livingroom, listening to my friends talk, and how hearing each other's stories....well, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it changed all four of us. We understood each other in a deeper way than we had before. We loved each other more tenderly than we had before.

I'm with Thich Nhat Hanh, when he says that understanding breeds compassion. If we truly understood another human being, says Thich Nhat Hanh, we would have complete compassion for that person. We would understand that we, in his/her shoes, would not have chosen any differently in life than s/he did. If we understood, and really felt deeply in our body, how that person was treated in childhood, what his/her mental habits and abilities were, what the cultural conditions were around him/her, what his/her weaknesses and desires and hurts were, we would have complete understanding for him/her, and therefore complete compassion.

It is my strong desire for that to happen. And it's my strong desire to have the heart capacity and the stillness and the mind capacity to listen, really really listen, to the story (not just the ideology, and maybe not the ideology at all) of each person I meet. It's my further desire for everyone's life and story to be considered equally valued, equally worthwhile. It's hard for me to listen. Well, not always, but...

Actually, you know what I realized lately? The problem with me is that I'm too hellbent on authenticity! I've always thought of my striving for authenticity as a good thing. But then just a few days ago I realized a downside to authenticity, which is that I can find it difficult to say things out of simple politeness, or out of the attempt to put someone else at ease. So like, when I first meet someone I find it difficult to ask them questions about themselves because I don't know them yet, so I'm not interested in them yet. That is the for-real, honest truth. I don't actually care much about them yet, so I'm not interested enough to ask questions. !!  I suppose to all you extroverts, and all you super-hospitable folks, this sounds like anathema. But it's the truth!

Whereas, once someone's snagged my attention, I have a whole lot of questions. And I really, really want to know the answer.

Which, it's cool that I pay attention to people who win my attention. But I, like everyone, have assumptions about who's worth attending to. It's these assumptions I'm trying to challenge.

I'm getting sidetracked here. The point, pre-sidetrack, is that I want to listen to people's stories. I want to prioritize stories from people whose stories have been marginalized. But I also think that some part of almost everyone's life has been marginalized. I knew in childhood a boy who grew up to become very privileged (straight white man, advanced degree at an Ivy League school) who as an adult killed himself because he had experienced horrific sexual abuse as a child that no one knew about until he wrote about it in his suicide note. That man may have been privileged by all external appearances, but he felt it so impossible to tell his story to anyone, and he was so tortured by what had happened, that he felt the only relief would come through death. We have all suffered. That is the truth.

I want to be the kind of person that man could have told his story to if we had known each other as adults. That might not have saved him. But sometimes the willingness to listen to someone's story, to listen from your heart, sometimes it does actually save a life. I want to see past "privileged white man" to the person whose worth and humanity is always so much more than even something as basic as race or class or gender.

And yes, it is also my desire for the privileged among us (of whom I am one) to be just as open-hearted, just as eager, to hear the stories of homeless people, undocumented people, mentally ill people, people of color, queer folk, strange folk, un-strange folk, boring folk, old folk, young folk, folk with 14 facial piercings.

On a perhaps related note, I read a brief but seemingly accurate explanation of what the deal is with ISIS (now known as IS). It's written by Loretta Napoleoni, an expert on the financing of terror. It's my recommended reading of the day. Almost none of it is explicit or triggering, and most of it is simple explanation/history. Toward the end she comes down fairly clearly on a certain side (certainly an anti-ISIS side, and also what Americans would call a "liberal" side), but even if you disagree with her assessment there at the end, I imagine you'd find the article an informative, succinct explanation of what's going on in the Middle East right now. You can find the article here.


  1. well, I did affirm years ago in an email with you that you can love someone you morally disagree with. One of the things current society does not understand is that one can love someone and still disagree and to think otherwise is to believe a fallacy. To need to always agree with another to just be friends with the person with this need would mean the person is really strict about who they are friends with, not to mention possible worse things. To me it is just like a Mother can love a child and still discipline or tell them 'no' .... all things are true - the love and the discipline and need for 'no'. Pretty simple to me, truth be told... and yes listening is important but not the only thing; depends to whom or why we are listening.

  2. One of the things I love about my job is that it puts me in tight quarters with people I would not normally ever have deep conversations with. Sometimes, extreme experiences (like performing CPR ferinstance) can bond you with those who also experience them. But mostly, it's the close proximity plus long hours plus wicked boredom that makes us start talking.
    Often, we share stories about ourselves. And that's pretty cool particularly because we are often so different. I'm a (very liberal) Christian. I know stories in detail about my atheist coworkers, the coworker who is Jehovah's Witness, the one who is Muslim, and those many who are agnostic. It's not perfect and sometimes you get posturing instead of stories, but often, you get stories. I love it.

    I'm off to read the ISIS thing...

  3. It's taken me far too long to answer these comments! Sorry, friends.

    Elizabeth: I agree with you that we can love people we disagree with--disagree both ideologically and morally. Yes. But it really depends what we disagree about. If I think that it's fine for marijuana to be legal, and you think it shouldn't be legal, that's probably a disagreement we can hold with no qualms. But if I think that women are inferior to men and should be kept subservient, and you think that men and women are equal and should be treated equally....well, that's going to be a tough disagreement to have and still remain on good terms. It's probably possible, but I'm guessing that if the relationship is going to be authentic, it'll only be possible to remain on good terms if we openly discuss the disagreement. It seems to me that often relationships continue when people radically disagree only because they're agreeing not to talk about the disagreement....and I guess I would wonder then about the authenticity of the relationship. Again, it really seems like it depends on the subject, and on how important that subject is to both parties. (Being friends with an NRA member may not be possible for someone whose child was killed by a gun, for example.)

    I was interested in the example you brought up about a mother who can love and discipline a child at the same time. I guess my two cents on that is that it depends on what you mean by "discipline." I recall a whole lot of discipline in my childhood that undermined the trustworthiness of the adults in my life. The word "discipline" has a negative meaning for me (synonymous with punish), but I know that people mean different things when they use the same words.

    Mel--I agree with you that working with people can be awesome because it helps us get to know them as people. Not as types. I wish that everyone could work closely with a gigantic diversity of people so that prejudices and stereotypes could be decreased!