Thursday, May 19, 2005

Misunderstanding Each Other

It is hard for human beings to understand each other.

Some friends and I have been talking a lot about the great polarizing forces in our culture. Issues get presented in highly polarized ways, as if, for every issue, there are two possible positions ("for" or "against") and those positions are totally incompatible! If we really believe this, then it is very tempting to surround ourselves with others who think like us, and from the comfort of this mutually-reinforcing social network, cast horrified looks at those "others" who somehow believe the opposite (= wrong!) point of view!

Is it possible to facilitate understanding across such entrenched divides? It is, but it requires attention not only to techniques of good, engaged dialogue, but also to the emotional dimensions of engaging in such dialogues. People can find it really scary to fully face points of view different from their own. Misunderstanding is rooted in fear.

Fortunately, fear has an amazing and seldom-appreciated quality: it tends to weaken (and often even dissolve) when irradiated with the power of full, conscious, critical attention. That is, when you turn to it and look at it directly and ask it firmly, "why are you here?!" fear shrivels to half its size and intensity, or less, and is only able to blurt out its half-hearted response, "I'm trying to protect you!" "From what?" you ask back. It fades even more. "Terrible things!" it says vaguely. "Like what?" you ask, gaining confidence. From here, the answers may vary, but they become increasingly unconvincing. Humiliation? Pain? (Are these actually fatal?) Death itself? Most of the things that frighten us or make us anxious do not, after all, really threaten death, when questioned seriously enough.

The more we identify the sources of our own insecurities and question them, the more we come to realize that fear is shadow to the light of consciousness. The best way to deal with fear is not to keep running, leaving a growing wake of shadow behind us, but to turn around and face the fear and try to increase our conscious understanding of both ourselves and the wider world of others who are different from us. And so, not only does fear block understanding, but the quest for greater understanding turns out to be the most effective antidote to the terrorizing power of fear.

After all, it is not fun to live caged in by fear, surrounded only by what is familiar and safe. Such a world is very small and ultimately unsatisfying. We do need the enrichment that others can give us. We need to come out of ourselves and into a world that is bigger than us. We need to keep growing.

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