This piece has been a long time coming and has been in draft form for weeks. Originally, I planned to write about “things that make me crazy.” starting with relatively mundane things like my grammatical pet peeves and being tailgated by big trucks, and then moving on to bigger things like my extreme frustration with the current political state of affairs.
However, I knew it would be hard to write about the political situation without launching into a bit of a rant, given my level of frustration. So instead, I want to pose a question that has been bothering and mystifying me for some time: How is it that perfectly nice and intelligent people can disagree so fundamentally? Some of these people are in my own extended family and my church or are good friends! I see what I believe to be horribly inaccurate, inflammatory and/or mean-spirited posts on Facebook from people who in other settings I like and respect. Back during the 2012 presidential election season, after I simply “liked” an article on Facebook, I got a private message from a friend concerned about my spiritual welfare; she wondered how a Christian could hold the views I apparently held, given the point of view of the article I endorsed. What is going on?
This is a serious question, and one I’ve asked in other situations of conflict and disagreement. How is it possible for two people to sit in the same meeting and come away with completely different interpretations of what happened and what was said – and each be totally convinced he or she is correct? In the middle of one conflict, I used to be amazed when I would receive reports on the same meeting from individuals who disagreed with each other. One would report that it was the worst meeting ever, while the other would tell me it was a really good meeting. Were they both telling the truth? If I had been there, would I have thought it was a good meeting or a bad meeting, or would I have been able to see that there was truth in both assessments?
The best answer I can come up with is that each of us brings our own unique experiences to each situation and we were each born with our own unique personalities and temperaments. No one else sees the world exactly as I do, and my unique experiences and temperament shape how I interpret the next experience or the pieces of information that come my way. In addition, along the way, we have all developed certain “prejudices” (one definition being “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable”), and these prejudices affect the way we interpret the information we receive, which is often incomplete. These prejudices also influence which pieces of information we choose to pay attention to and which we reject, and often insulate us from different perspectives that might change our prejudices and our views about certain things.
Here’s how one trivial example of this might work. What if I had a negative experience associated with the color red, or one time someone I respect told me that the color red is associated with something else I don’t like? I am probably not going to wear a red sweater – even if I can see that the sweater looks great on me and everyone else tells me it looks great. It’s red, and I’ve never liked red; therefore, I don’t like that sweater, even though I really like the style, the price is right, and there’s overwhelming external evidence that red is a good color for me. Whether or not I like red is fairly inconsequential, of course. But it might become a problem if I decide to attach morality to my preference, and try to convince everyone else that liking red is morally wrong. (For the record, red is probably my favorite color; one of the reasons I like Christmas is that I get to wear red a lot!)
Maybe it doesn’t matter how it happens that people look at the same sets of facts and come to different conclusions, however curious it is. Perhaps what matters more is how we handle the reality of those differences. Words and phrases like humility, respect, willingness to listen, understanding and kindness come to mind, along with the golden rule of doing to others what we’d like them to do to us. It’s also really important to have the facts straight before we pass along information that could be hurtful to someone else, and not, as so often happens when emotions are intense and tempers flare, perpetuate and even promote falsehoods. And it’s sometimes helpful to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and really try to understand why they believe what they do – to try on for size, for example, the other person’s point of view and see how it feels.
Quite honestly, during these days of craziness in Washington, I’m having a really hard time following my own advice. I regularly want to scream at what I’m hearing on the radio or TV, or I’m tempted to respond sharply to yet another Facebook post that pulls my chain. I confess that I really don’t appreciate or even understand certain points of view. But every once in a while I take a deep breath and try to understand, and I remind myself that I don’t want to be what I dislike in others: mean-spirited, untruthful, judgmental, disrespectful, arrogant and unkind. Instead, I want to follow the advice of the Apostle Paul: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.”
I’m still curious, however: How is it that perfectly nice and intelligent people can disagree so fundamentally?