In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Yoda said “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Many Americans have come to fear those who hold political or religious views different from their own. (I’ll call them “differently-believing persons” or “DBPs.”) Our mutual fear has already led to anger, hate and suffering.
Fear can cause us to avoid DBP’s or to engage them in an impersonal manner, e.g., on Facebook. It would be better if we didn’t engage at all. Trading rants, barbs and sarcastic memes on social media only increases mutual fear and disagreement.
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Yet, when we contemplate a personal conversation with a DBP, one of the things we fear is losing our tempers. Believe it or not, that’s good news—for two reasons:
First, if you fear losing your temper with a DBP, you’re one of the good guys. The really dangerous folks are those who want to act out their fear, anger and hate, e.g., with hate crimes.
Second, if you fear losing your temper, you intuitively realize that conversing in the grip of fear will only lead to escalating conflict. That’s an important realization.
Fear, and our hard-wired reactions to it, evolved to deal with imminent physical dangers. The saber-toothed cat is bearing down on your oblivious friend. You instinctively cry out loudly, your voice resonates with fear. Your friend runs from the cat.
Our biological evolution hasn’t kept pace with our social evolution. Crying out in fear still serves you if a speeding car is bearing down on your oblivious friend. But fear and other negative emotions work against mindful conversation. We speak ill-chosen words in tense voices. The DBP senses the negativity and reciprocates in kind.
This doesn’t mean your only option is avoidance. You can take small, easy, less scary steps toward building a bridge with a DBP, a bridge to respectful, civilized discussion.
And guess what? Slowing things down, taking one little step at a time, actually works better. Be the tortoise, not the hare, and you’ll get there faster.
Your first step of engagement, the first board in the bridge, need not involve any words at all. It can be a simple, sincere act of kindness. For many of us, that’s the least scary form of engagement, one tortoise step.
Let’s say a DBP at work always commandeers the break room TV, choosing a channel he considers news and you consider propaganda. Hearing it evokes your fear.
Perhaps you not only avoid the DBP, you avoid the break room as well. You fear what he, and those who think and vote like him, may do to our country and our way of life. And/or you fear that he will try to force his political or religious beliefs on you.
Before you even try to engage this DBP, understand that the fear is reciprocal. As a religious liberal, I feel an initial, gut-level twinge of fear when a scriptural literalist tries to evangelize me. But I learned from Dr. Jill Carroll, an expert on religions, that evangelical Christians fear people like me will try to force our beliefs (or lack of beliefs) on them.
The beliefs are also reciprocal. The DBP in the break room believes his choice of news is unbiased and your preference is propaganda. So if you try to tell him his “news” is biased, or downright false, he’ll react just as you would if he made a similar statement to you.
Understand that we naturally assume people like ourselves are good guys. Once I was exiting a parking garage in a joyous, outgoing mood. The cashier noticed and said, “You’re so nice, so happy. You must be a Christian.” I’m sure she meant to pay me a compliment, but I was dismayed that she thought only Christians are happy or pleasant.
A sincere act of kindness makes a good first step because it shows the DBP you’re a good person. It might take several such steps before the DBP actually thinks of you as a decent person. Even then, he might think your beliefs are mistaken.
That’s OK. It’s still a step. Be the tortoise. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
For example, if the DBP is heading toward a closed cupboard with a stack of boxes, open the cupboard for him. If he’s banging on the vending machine that ate his quarter, offer him one of your quarters.
The kindness must be sincere. If you see the kind act as a way to manipulate or convert the DBP, back off till you can narrow your vision to a genuine act of kindness, no strings. Just that one tortoise step.
Right now, think of a DBP in your life who scares you, someone you see regularly. This week, look for an opportunity to do that person a kindness. Then, let me know what you did. The acts of kindness you report will inspire others.
In a future post, we’ll talk about how to keep cool when we take a conversational step.