Over the past few years since I’ve known him, my husband and I have talked about politics, social justice, racism, immigration, religious freedom, gender, theology, sexual orientation, and a host of other, you know, small, insignificant issues. (not!) Actually, at times our discussions have felt tense. Recently, I learned that I occasionally (and unfairly) bow out of an argument by claiming my husband’s position is irrational (I’ve apologized and asked for forgiveness). Often, I would take a side that I didn’t necessarily agree with just to kind of test it out. In most cases, Steve and I actually hold mutually inclusive opinions, even if we don’t completely agree.
If you were a fly on the wall, or say Tilly, our black Labrador Retriever, you’d probably conclude from those discussions that I am a strong advocate for many issues that I care deeply about. You’d expect thoughtful posts by me on social media, and you’d easily imagine my deep conversations with others about the important issues of the day. At least that’s what my conversations at home with my husband might suggest.
The problem is, I am not that strong advocate; I don’t write thoughtful posts of cultural criticism; I rarely ever have conversations with others about politics or race or religious freedom. Only recently have I begun to understand why.
Here’s what I thought were the reasons: I hold a lot of middle road positions, I am deeply empathetic to people on all sides, and I am a nuanced thinker who’s increasingly comfortable in gray areas. All of these things are true, of course. And they do comprise part of the reason I avoid tense discussions or arguments. If you tried to debate me on your pet issue, I’d probably take your side, or at least understand its core arguments, without ever forming an opinion of my own. Or, I might actually become angered by your position, or confused or hurt, but in order to try to see your side, I would probably never tell you.
But after reading Marilyn McEntyre’s essay, “What Are We Willing to Know?” in the August issue of Comment, I’m not sure my real reasons for avoiding debate and conversation lay so firmly in the faux humility of “I just care too much.” Instead, it seems more like I don’t care enough to take the responsibility of learning, choosing, and then acting.
“The problem with deciding not to inform ourselves is the assumption that attempting to understand the vast web of systems on which we depend is optional,” writes McEntyre. “We can’t all be scientists. Or take college-level economics. Or recognize the ingredients in processed foods. But we can deepen our commitment to caring for each other and the earth by reflecting honestly on a few hard questions.”
She then lists six such hard questions that create a kind of framework for how we learn, converse, and act in a world most of us feel is quite far from the ideal of human flourishing:
- What am I willing to know?
- What am I willing to ask?
- Whom am I willing to trust?
- What am I willing to risk?
- What or with whom am I willing to argue?
- What am I willing to act on?
I think these are such great questions that I’m going to use them as a thinking and writing exercise for myself over the next few months. I plan to tackle them privately in my journal, personally through face-to-face conversations, and publicly on my blog and social media. I don’t know how long it will take or how often I’ll write or whether or not you’ll decide to stick around to talk about these questions. But choosing not to engage, and by engage I mean only respectful and loving dialogue and action, no longer seems acceptable.
The biggest and hardest question on this list is number four: what am I willing to risk? Because the issues swirling around us today are not just theoretical for me and my family. They aren’t just things to shout about on Facebook. Like they do for you, the issues of the day affect us where we live and work and worship, even here in our small midwestern city surrounded by cornfields.
What am I willing to know? I’m willing to know the truth about my community, about my country, about my leaders, about corporations and organizations, about science, about faith, about my church, about my friends and family, and even about myself. Because though it may hurt, divide, endanger, or confuse, in the long run, only the truth will set us free.