“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”– Thich Nhat Hanh
It took several days of reading this quote for me to truly understand it. At first, I disagreed with the idea that reason had no positive effect. I believe reason is essential to personal growth and understanding. But the deeper I considered Hanh’s words, the more I realized how essential this approach was in understanding people with whom you disagree, and vice versa.
In order to have a conversation with someone whose views or actions offend your personal convictions, you have to first temper your anger and remember that they, too, are human beings. Not two-dimensional characters. When we see people through a scope of good vs. evil, friend vs. enemy, we take away the complexity of the human condition. In the words of Tara Brach, we let them become “unreal”:
“The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socioeconomic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves. Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our typecasting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.”– Tara Brach
If we are to engage in civil discourse, we must first see the person we are engaging; see the humanity that makes them who they are. Understanding why someone does certain things or believes certain things doesn’t mean you condone it. But it does allow you to see beyond your own simplified assumptions and remember that you – under different conditions – could be just like them.
Beyond that, we must be able to take a step back and see how we, too, are a product of our environment and experiences – for better or for worse. Too often we read or listen to something and decide it’s validity by whether we agree or disagree with it. In this approach, we learn nothing. Rather, we just try to validate our own existing convictions. But just because we believe something is true, doesn’t mean our perception is correct. We must keep an open mind.
Abandon the motive to change another person and instead choose to engage them in attempt to understand, to hear, to be heard, and to know that even if you ultimately still disagree, that is still another person with a story, with experiences, that shaped who they are, just like you.
Only in this place of understanding can we hear one another and receive what wisdom they may have to offer, and vice versa.
Personally, I’m trying extremely hard to work on this. The more I do, the more I see that – even though I believe that I am right – my views are shaped by my experiences and, in some cases, the deep-rooted pain that came from them.
Specifically, one of my struggles is with Christianity. Before I say anything more, let me preface by saying that I don’t believe that Christianity is a bad thing – it’s not my enemy. I refuse to villainize it. I grew up in it. I’ve seen the incredible sense of community and love that can be born from it and I still believe Jesus was a brilliant and radical teacher that I greatly admire.
But I also have to acknowledge the deep and profound pain and anger toward the negative impacts its had upon my life – and others. My experiences associate it with shame and alienation, and that pain… it skews my perspective. It makes me quick to assume the defensive, and uncomfortable in the presence of those who speak openly about their faith. I don’t like that it evokes these reactions out of me, but these are valid feelings that I know I need to work through with loving kindness, both toward myself and toward the community that caused that pain.
To quote Thich Nhat Hanh once more, “Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves. If we are at war with our parents, our family, our society, or our church, there is probably a war going on inside us also, so the most basic work for peace is to return to ourselves and create harmony among the elements within us—our feelings, our perceptions, and our mental states.”
And I believe the only way to do that is to listen, to connect, and to understand not just myself, but also the people and the community that left such a profound impact upon me without being afraid to speak and to seek understanding as well.
The same can be said with those divided by politics, religion, community, and culture. We must not approach one another to convince, but rather to understand if we ever hope to listen, to hear, and to see one another openly.