If you’re reading this letter, it’s because you disagree with me.1 And because I’m the kind of person I am, you probably disagree with me about something I feel very strongly about. That’s because I feel very strongly about everything. Faith and onions and leggings and children’s books—if I’m informed enough to have an opinion, you can bet it’ll be a terrifyingly passionate one.
Unfortunately, I hate conflict. Deeply, desperately hate it. It gives me stomachaches and makes me so miserable I can hardly think about anything else—even when it’s imaginary conflict with people I don’t even know. It is hard for me to be public about my controversial beliefs. But it would be impossible for me not to be. Standing on a soapbox was written into my soul. It’s who I am.
It’s not a comfortable place to be, but it’s often a productive one, this diplomatic-dogmatic balance I try to hold. I cling to what I know to be true and err on the side of love. And generally people see that and respond with respect.
But sometimes not. Sometimes people attack and accuse and willfully misunderstand. Sometimes the rules of logic and civility seem to be thrown out the window. Sometimes the sound of a Facebook notification makes me so anxious I’m afraid I’m going to give myself an ulcer.
So often it’s because we assume the worst about each other. We assume that all people who disagree with us are condemning us. We think they hate us and find us stupid. And we believe that their position is really the stupid one and if only we can beat our flawless argument into their worthless heads they’ll finally agree with us.
I love you. I really do. And when I try to explain these things—chastity or faith or the Eucharist or helping the poor—it’s because I love you. It’s not because you’re wrong and bad and stupid. It’s because I honestly believe that you’ll be happier living in the truth. I’m sure you disagree. And that’s okay. Just please know that I’m trying to love you well through all this.
I kind of hate me. I know how I—and the Church—often come across: a cold-hearted shrew screaming “NO!” at everyone who’s trying to be happy. I hate that I can’t just “live and let live.” But so often “live and let live” is code for “live and let die.” How can I stand by and watch you break your own heart and not say anything? I hate that the love I speak sounds so much like “NO.” I wish we understood each other better so you could hear the “yes” I’m trying to say.
I get where you’re coming from. I think the most important thing in dialogue is honestly trying to understand why the other person takes a particular position. So on every issue, I’m always trying to figure out the kind, loving, genuine beliefs that could motivate my opposition—and then I ascribe them to every person I encounter. So when you’re trying to tell me that rape victims should abort their babies, I hear compassion and sensitivity and a weak understanding of embryology. I’d love to hear why you take this position–that’s why I’m talking to you–but know that I really am assuming the best about you. I’d appreciate the same.
You’re probably not going to convince me. Just about everything I truly believe, I fought. And I fought hard. So if I believe it now, it’s because I’ve asked all these questions and found answers that satisfy me. The only worldview that makes any sense to me at all is the Catholic one. So I’ll listen, because I want to understand your position and appreciate its logic. And if you’re really convincing, I’ll probably think and pray about it for a few days. I may even do some more research.2 But if you’re opposing something the Church teaches infallibly, that’s as far as it’s going to go, God willing.3 Being open-minded, I think, doesn’t mean accepting anything you’re told even if it flies in the face of everything you hold dear; it means being willing to accept that another position is (at some level) kind and reasonable and to consider it fairly. That I’ll do.
I’m not always trying to convince you. Sometimes I know I’m not going to. Maybe you’re so young in your exploration of faith or you’re so rooted in the things of this world or you’ve convinced yourself so thoroughly of a certain matter that I’m pretty sure my input won’t make a difference. I won’t give up on you, but I don’t think it’s my job to convince you of my position. I do think it’s my job to show you that my position4 is reasonable and loving. When I ask you to be open-minded, it’s not because I want you to let go of your convictions; it’s because I want you to recognize that mine aren’t ludicrous or cruel. I promise to return the favor.
I’d love to answer any of your well-meant questions. People are sometimes afraid to ask questions—like they think I’ll be offended by their questions about celibacy or how strange it is to sit in a candle-lit room and talk to yourself. But if you’re asking honestly—either because you want to know or because you’re not sure I’ve asked that question of myself—I’m so happy to answer. I’m a Catholic because I really believe that it’s the truth. I really believe that the Church has all the answers. And if I can’t answer your question, that’s something I need to deal with.
That said, there are some questions that are just accusations. You know, “How can you oppose contraception when priests rape babies?” and “WTF is wrong with you?” and the like. Once we fall into ad hominem attacks and incessant harping on analogies, I’m out.
I don’t think you’re stupid because you disagree with me. We live in a world where thinking someone is wrong is perceived as thinking that person is stupid or worthless or going to hell. I don’t think any of those things about anyone. I know wildly intelligent people who disagree with everything that I find essential. I know particularly unintelligent people who understand the faith far better than I ever will. I honestly think it’s been years since I judged a person as stupid or sinful or what-have-you because of his beliefs.
I do tend to think you’re stupid when you stop using reason and start freaking out. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe it’s something I should work on. But when you ignore every point I make except one and then misinterpret that one? When I explain my position over and over and you continue to fight a straw man? When you act like you know all the things and you can’t even grasp my definition of the word the debate hinges on? That’s when I struggle. And that’s usually when I excuse myself from the conversation.
I’m happy to drop it. It’s the peacemaker in me—I don’t want to fight you. So if you’re done debating, I’ll call it quits. And I probably won’t bring it up again for years, if ever. It’s hard for me not to talk about Jesus, him being the center of my life and all, but it’s easy for me just to limit those comments.5 If you’re firm in your position, I’ll love you and visit you and like your Facebook pictures and never say another word about our disagreement. But I’m here when you’re ready to.
I’m doing the best I can. I was born with my foot in my mouth and it just gets worse when we start talking about something that really matters. When we’re talking, it’s likely that my brain will take over and my heart will run pathetically after, trying to pull the words back into my mouth. I may say something that sounds totally insensitive because we’re speaking different languages. I’m sorry. But please assume that I mean well. I really am trying.
This, I think, is what dialogue is all about: love and forgiveness and understanding. It’s not about winning or ripping someone’s worldview apart and leaving him crying amid the rubble. It’s not necessarily about changing anyone’s position but about helping her to nuance it, maybe, or even just to acknowledge yours as not the worst thing ever to happen.
And you know what, friends? I assume you’re on the same page. I assume your intelligence and your good intentions and your integrity. I try to read all of your remarks in the most charitable way possible. Maybe if we all did the same, we could start making some progress.
Yours in compassionate conviction (I hope),
- No, really. You do. About something, I’m sure. [↩]
- Really—a very convincing Mormon got me questioning, as did a Calvinist. I’m listening. [↩]
- Matters of prudential judgment and politics and opinion are entirely up for grabs, of course. Except Notre Dame football. Duh. [↩]
- And by extension, I hope, the Church’s. [↩]
- My little brother is an atheist. He also hates football, which makes him a heathen in more ways than one. I said something about football a few years back and he interrupted me: “Meg, you know I don’t like football.” I said, “Timmy, I have two topics. Football and Jesus. Pick one.” He picked football. [↩]