I subscribe to the view that all of us are constantly adding to and subtracting from our own personal and private little book, “Practical Rules to Live By.” From the moment we are endowed with consciousness, life etches important “do’s” and “don’ts” onto the tabula rasa of our mind and heart. The more explicit and conscious we are about those rules, the better. Until the middle of August, the following phrase appeared somewhere near the middle of my own book, “When Bill Benevento offers you a glass of wine, always say yes.”
With an old world name like, “Benevento,” and his own personal appellation of origin being the San Francisco Bay Area (practically around the corner from Napa), he can detect a good wine like an eye surgeon can detect a detached retina (another hobby of his). And so, this summer, when Bill handed me a glass, I was determined not to let this cup pass without drinking from it. Never mind that I had not eaten or drunk anything but coffee all day long.
Something like an hour later, I found myself sitting next to Vance. On the grand ideological teeter totter of life, Vance and I are equal and opposites. Normally we balance each other off as we go up and down over topics of interest. It did not take long for the effects of wine and the contentious political season to have their effects on my conversation. In Emily Post’s book of personal rules to live by, I am sure that my party faux pas would far surpass a simple double dip at the buffet table. I suspect my provocative comments would place me in the dreaded “Baby Ruth Bar in the Party Pool” section of her book (Caddyshack, 1980).
Vance and I quickly patched things up, and I did my best to apologize to the guests who were subjected to the sharp bouquet of my political perspectives. Nonetheless, in light of the polarizing presidential election of the last year-and-a-half (seems like decades), I have found myself, personal rule book in hand, reflecting back on that evening’s events.
A clear and obvious take-away from that event involves a different sort of bottle than the one Bill offered me: White Out. It’s now time to amend my old rule to, “When Bill offers you a glass of wine, make sure you have had plenty of food and water in your stomach, and…Sip. Don’t gulp.”
But as I reflect and pray over the events of that evening, it seems to me that my personal rule book requires a more substantial edit. And I refuse to believe it is simply the usual cut and paste job recommended by society, “Never discuss religion or politics.” To forever moor my conversational boat in such safe harbors is to avoid opportunities to see the distant shores that can be provided by people who view different political and religious horizons than me.
It is by now old news that America has sorted itself into intellectual and ideological gated communities. Ideological doppelgangers who will agree with and amplify every one of my opinions are never more than a click away. As a result, parked in the same ideological harbor next to the same neighbors, like barnacles, layer upon layer of the same opinions can begin to accumulate, making me less intellectually, spiritually, and relationally nimble. To avoid all conversations of politics and religion is to remove one more venue that has the capacity to scrape away old certitudes, or challenge tired ideas.
So if I am to launch productive conversations in the vulnerable realms of religion and politics, what rules will I consult to guide me through these potentially rough waters? I will list these rules in an ascending order of importance.
Rule Number Seven: Assess whether or not a dialogue partner is, in fact, a dialogue partner. Don’t try to dialogue with someone who can’t or won’t.
Rule Number Six (A corollary to “Rule Number Seven”): It is a fool’s errand to try and change someone’s mind. Sharing? Yes. Converting? No.
Rule Number Five (A corollary to “Rule Number Six”): Avoid staking out a position and arguing for it.
Rule Number Four: When you feel ethically obliged to offer your perspective to someone you believe to be on morally shaky ground, offer your comment calmly and succinctly making every attempt not to judge the person who made the offensive comment.
Rule Number Three: Memorize two or three useful phrases that help you speak up when your sense of ethics or decency is offended. For example:
· “I’ve heard you say way funnier things than that before.”
· “You and I have a different way of looking at that, I’d love to talk about that sometime.”
· “I respect you as a smart person, but I don’t agree with what you just said.”
· “That’s not cool.”
· “I’m uncomfortable with that.”
· “What do you mean by that?”
· “I don’t want to talk about this here, but would be glad to discuss at another time.”
· Feel free to get back with someone if you don’t have the words in the moment.
Rule Number Two: Develop a discipline of soothing your heart down. What are your spiritual practices that access peace and real compassion for someone else? Utilize those practices. Breathe mindfully with the use of a sacred word or phrase sub voce (under your breath). In addition to giving your dialogue partner good eye contact, with the eyes of your imagination, see the wisest and most peaceful person you have ever known. Imagine their hand is on your shoulder, and you are trying to make them proud of you in your speech and demeanor.
Rule Number One: “Seek to understand more than to be understood.” (Francis of Assisi, circa 1220 AD)
This rule does not oblige you to agree with a position that seems illogical, ill-informed, or immoral. Your questions aimed at more thoroughly grasping your partner’s position may provide you a way to agree with some small part of what they are saying. More importantly, it may move you beyond a consideration of the topic at hand toward a deeper understanding and compassion for the person who holds the position.