Willful ignorance, fear, and the path of love

Posted: 2012/05/19 in Coping, Emotions, Loving, Stories
Tags: , ,

I saw this quote today, and it lodged somewhere down deep.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.
—Upton Sinclair

I think it was meant as a put-down. “Of course he doesn’t want to understand. He’s doing well at others’ expense, and he wouldn’t be able to stand himself if he knew the truth.” There’s a lot of that going on in my country right now. Other people don’t agree with me about matters of grave importance. Why? Simple. Either

  • they’re stupid, or
  • they’re evil.

But the quote made me think, “Maybe they’re just scared.”

They’re scared of losing their literal job—the thing that puts the food they’re used to on the table, and keeps the roof they’re used to over their head—if my words turn out to be the truth.

Or maybe they’re scared that my words will render the stories they tell themselves unconvincing, and therefore powerless—powerless to hold back their fears any longer. At stake perhaps is their pride, their self-worth, what little happiness they have, or maybe even their ability to function for one more day.

To paraphrase Kathryn Schulz, being wrong feels just like being right. It’s finding out you’re wrong that feels awful.

Let’s assume for a minute that I really am right, and you really are wrong, about something that matters to both of us. Let’s also assume that the path of love is only for people who understand the situation. If not, your fears are irrelevant to me. If reason doesn’t work, I’ll try men with guns—law if I control that, and “to the barricades!” if I don’t. I’ll bombard you with truth, in ever larger calibers, and either persuade you or silence you. But you deserve it, because you’re either an idiot, or you’re evil. And after all, the truth is at stake, and it’s for the greater good (the fact that I Win and You Lose is just a coincidence).

What choice did I have? But it’s what Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler call a “sucker’s choice” in Crucial Conversations.

But what if your fears do matter to me? Pragmatically, they’re causing you to dig in and resist the truth, to my harm, and also to yours. Empathetically, I don’t like to find out I’m wrong and be scared either, and what does the Golden Rule tell me?

Plus, if your fears really matter to me, it elevates my own thinking. I find myself with a more complex problem. How do I advance the truth and keep you safe? And-questions, according to Patterson et al., literally divert blood from the amygdala—that instantaneous, emotional, lock-and-load part of the brain—to the frontal cortex—that slower part that does the real thinking.

When I’m trying to advance the truth and keep you safe, I have to set aside either-or, all-or-nothing, litmus-test attitudes about you. I have to lean into you, and listen carefully for feelings as well as words, and make sure it’s not just the fear talking.

When I started writing this, I was thinking about the breakdown in dialogue, on every scale from national to personal, involving me and people I care about. I was thinking about real-world, Time-of-Icarus issues like the national debt, peak oil, and climate change, or hot-button issues like abortion and homosexual marriage, and I got stuck. I found myself writing a fictional dialogue about fears I’ve invented for the other person, and fears of my own that I’m afraid to put on the Internet. That’s not fair to those with whom I disagree. I’m not sure I could keep you safe in person, and I know I can’t in in a blog. So I think it’s time to put down the keyboard and back away slowly.

I highly recommend the Crucial Conversations book. And I encourage you also to put down the keyboard, and turn off the computer and the TV, and try talking, and especially listening, and not just for the words but for the feelings.

As you advance the truth and keep the other safe, really mean it. If you don’t really mean it, but only want to keep them feeling safe so you can win, ask yourself, “What am I afraid of, that I feel I must use lies to advance truth?”

And as you hear unsettling might-be-truth from others, ask for safety. If none can be found where you stand, consider shifting your own source of safety to firmer foundations, and ask for someone to walk with you and keep you safe as you do.


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