June 24, 2012
The idea for this post came from a powerful Susan Piver quote on her Open Heart Project site. Here’s the quote:
“There is only one misstep we can take in this whole endeavor, one step, that if we go there, any situation becomes completely unworkable. That step is to divide the world into us and them. Once we put ourselves on the right side of the line and others on the wrong side, there is absolutely nowhere to go. I’m not at all suggesting that we should forgive, condone, or accept terrible people or things. Honestly, there are events in this world that cause me to feel what I can only call hate. But we are all in this together. The inexcusable things are also my responsibility—not that I caused them or should beblamed for them, but still I am obligated to help set things right.”
Susan’s comments made me think of all the time and energy I’ve expended building cases in my head against someone or something. In hindsight I’m stunningly aware that I have nothing to show for it. I’m not referring to thoughtful deliberation that leads to productive action. I’m talking about the in-my-head-broken-record-repetition of the same story, over and over and over. The story of how someone did me wrong, or did the world wrong, or did something that wasn’t in keeping with my personal code of ethics. If I could bottle that energy I’d have enough juice to power myself to the moon.
In addition to my private ruminations, I notice there’s another way I put people on the other side of the line. I pick a side. There seems to be a switch in my brain that flips when I argue for one side of a situation. My body tenses, I become more alert, and I experience a bit of an adrenaline rush. At the same time, I pretty much stop listening to the other person except to find holes in their argument or to notice when I can step back in and take the floor again. When there is a face-off between two people who believe their position is more valid than the other guy’s, no one wins. Either they ‘agree to disagree’ or someone gives in with a disgruntled “Whatever” and walks away, or they simply run out of steam and, exhausted and disheartened, table it for later.
This isn’t black and white. Of course there are times when it’s crucial to take a stand. That’s for another post.
So is there a person or a group or a cause you have put on the other side of the line?
The way I’ve been trying to set that right lately is to notice when my feet are embedded on one side. Sometimes when I see what I’m doing I can lean in to the situation with an open heart. But I’ll tell you the truth. The bit about opening my heart when I’m in the grip of an intense emotion is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be. Sometimes the best I can do is to just stop. Stop talking. Stop defending and explaining and justifying. I’m working on it.
Robyn, what a particularly thought-provoking subject. Here is a long-time teacher’s(Dr. Gary North) idea that addresses this issue of taking sides (usually based on strong emotions, rather than logic). It is excerpted from an essay he wrote proposing that the most important skill any teenager could learn in school, is to think critically.
“One of the assignments that I gave in the one semester that I taught at the college level was this one. I assigned a topic. The topic was controversial. I told students that they had to write a 15-page term paper, double-spaced. This would be the total of about 3,500 words. One-third of the paper had to be devoted to arguing in favor of the proposition. One-third of the paper had to be devoted to refuting the proposition. Finally, the remainder of the paper had to be an assessment of what the most cogent solution to the problem would be.
This forced the student to take a position, but only after the student had carefully made the best case he could for both sides of the question. This was a debate paper, but unlike a formal debate, the student was forced to reconcile the two positions. He had to know the best arguments for each side, and he had to express those arguments within a limit of 1,200 words. “
Thanks, Dick. What a great exercise–the options become limitless! Love this!
Us and them….that sounds so divisive even on the very surface. Sadly it seems almost primal. Look at nature in it’s true state. Predators and prey fight the us vs. them battle every day. But they also compromise, so compromise is just as primal. A bear might want that big huge juicy salmon but has to settle for the smaller one that’s closer so it doesn’t go off the edge of a waterfall.
I only use that example to illustrate how compromise is built in to us at the most basic animal level just as much as the us vs. them. It’s about which path we choose, how we react, the decisions we make, and the value we put on the relationships we have with others. Try being married without compromise, very short marriage indeed assuming the relationship ever even makes it to the chapel.
I’m still learning to pick my battles. It’s okay to be wrong, so long as you learn from it. I spent a long time saying it but never really walked that talk myself as much as I should have. It’s also okay to be right, but only so long as we remember that “right” for us may not be just as “right” or clear cut for somebody else. Here comes that pesky compromise again.
Hey Scott. I’m kind of blown away by the depth of the comments. You’ve given another twist–it’s okay to be right, as long as we remember that ‘right’ for us may not be somebody else’s ‘right’.
One of my friends recently told me the following for when you feel like arguing or defending: “I just ask the person to help me understand what they mean or what their point of view is”. As Robyn said, its very hard to remember to do this, but it helps everytime.
Another piece of really good advice! The challenge seems to be in noticing before foot is inserted in mouth 🙂
Excellent reminder to open ears and heart and shut mouth! I definitely need to mindfully practice this! Thanks! Peace
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