Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working my way through a series of questions posed by Marilyn McEntyre in her essay “What Are We Willing to Know?” in the August issue of Comment Magazine. The essay was provocative because it pushes us to ask questions and know things that might make us cringe, become uncomfortable, or even change the way we live. We all have excuses for not knowing, not asking, and not trying to understand. “I don’t have the _______ (time, education, courage, stomach, concern, interest … you fill in the blank).” But McEntyre says that doesn’t let us off the hook:

“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.”

I’ve covered her first three questions in earlier posts, as well as social media exchanges, published articles, and other places you might find me:

Today, I want to cover the next two:

  • What am I willing to risk?
  • What or with whom am I willing to argue?

I live in a house with three teenage boys. As you can imagine, we have our fair share of arguments. Step into our house on any given day, and you might hear heated discussions over what’s on TV, who’s taking out the trash, how loud someone is singing (or breathing), and when dinner will finally be ready. I keep a running commentary of “thing’s I never thought I’d say,” which the boys think is hysterical. Most of them, things like don’t lick your brother’s plate, are an attempt to avoid more arguments.

Of course, boys will be boys, and brothers are, well, brothers. Eventually, I’m told, the arguments will grow fewer and fewer. But I am learning, as one of the parents in this situation, the importance of not arguing about everything — to choose my battles. Because It’s not like my actions are exempt from causing the arguments, or that I’m totally innocent in engaging in them myself. But arguments take a lot of energy and often come with a large emotional price tag that I don’t have the surplus to cover.

I think about the wide range of things we argue over at home when I imagine what or with whom I am willing to argue outside my home. The energy and emotion there are just as great, maybe greater. Not to mention the risk we take in arguing our point. That’s the reason I paired the question about arguing with the question of risk: because almost any time we go out on a limb to argue, we’re inherently risking something. Among brothers, every argument creates the potential for hurt feelings, misunderstandings, or isolation. The same is true for public arguments. In fact, in our age of social media, 24-hour news cycles, and YouTube videos, every time we argue about something, we risk being proven wrong, being ostracized, or being targeted for our perspective. We have to weigh the risks when deciding what or with whom we are willing to argue.

On the other hand, some issues are so important, some injustices so egregious, and some events so historic that the greater risk might be not arguing. In that case, are we willing to risk allowing our neighbors, friends, or even entire groups or classes of people to be targeted or ostracized so that we won’t have to be?

In the end, who clogged the toilet or what show to watch on television probably isn’t worth arguing about. But there are plenty of issues that are: things like integrity, equality, and justice. Even if the risk is high.