I thought I had got past my angsty, chip-on-the-shoulder, world-is-MY-oyster, no-I-don’t-want-to-commit-to-that-because-I-need-to-find-my-Grand-Purpose stage. Nope. In some areas I’m still lagging behind, still being judgemental, still fighting off the tyrannical quirks of early-adult reality processing mechanisms. For example, a typical exchange on a social media platform, or in private correspondence, often goes like this:
Me: Asks a question.
Person: Thoughtful, considerate and long response.
Me: Reads reply quickly. Responds furiously with cursory acknowledgement of their answer, followed by a dogmatic statement of my own position, and another question.
What I had been doing was embarrassingly immature. Sure, I was looking for answers, but when people were gracious enough to supply them I initiated a one-way game of one-upmanship, where I directly or indirectly challenged their position without really considering its substance.
I know this now. Partly because I’ve witnessed myself do it a lot, but mostly because a conversation with someone else illuminated it to me. We were talking about people’s ability to discuss sacred topics. For example, if you’re religious in any way it should be possible for a person to probe your beliefs—to ask why you believe X. I’m not religious and I don’t mind people asking me why. Shouldn’t there be some sort of symmetry?
However, my conversational partner pointed out that religion is something that is, for a lot of people, tightly bound to identity. To ask about the foundations of a religious belief is to ask about the foundations of a person’s identity. Conversations like that don’t tend to go well. I suggested a prior statement of non-hostility before such talk. Kind of like signing a disclaimer—Anything I’m about to say or ask is not a personal insult; it is voiced in the spirit of inquiry.
Still, my conversational partner was hesitant. “Those are not the things that you can challenge a person on or persuade them to think differently about”, is basically what he said.
“Challenge”. “Persuade”. In some cases, “reconcile”. That is what I had been trying to do. I had been attempting to change a person’s mind, or to force them to justify their beliefs or thought in so rigorous a manner that it persuaded me of the correctness of their position. To envelope their worldview into my own, or to cast it out for its obvious inadequacies. So twenty-something.
What to do about this? Up until that point I had been searching for points of convergence and divergence and trying to form a kind of mutually beneficial uniformity of thought with the people I interacted with. I’ll think what you think if what you think is good enough, provided you think what I think if you think it’s good enough too. Now, I don’t go for any of that. Now, the operative word for the manner of my communication is “exploration”.
I still want to know why and how you believe in X, —more than ever, in fact. But I don’t automatically want to do something with that knowledge. I don’t want to change your mind, or change my own. I just want to see how you see, to think how you think. For a moment, I want to believe what you believe in the unique way that you believe it. Nothing more, nothing less.