I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.
I’m not a hot-headed blusterer in the face of disagreement; I’m the opposite: a flinching coward.
So this is an ongoing journey in my life: to learn how to claim my own opinions and not run away from disagreement about opinions, beliefs, and perspectives—and, thus, from mature intellectual discussion.
You’d think I’d already have this down pat, given the fact that I left my cult-like religious world to question, study, and figure out what I wanted to believe for myself. But I think sometimes it’s easier to achieve big steps like that than to conquer the small, everyday enemies in our lives—in this case, the enemy of fear.
I typically run away from disagreement, because in the moment I don’t feel able to handle the great discomfort and fear that I feel. My usual tactics are to:
1) change the subject (and then steer clear of the topic in the future),
2) pretend to agree,
3) or, every now and then, actually let the other person talk me into her point of view.
All of these tactics had consequences far worse than the momentary discomfort I had felt during the disagreement. I was choosing short-term relief at the cost of long-term damage:
By changing the subject and steering clear of the topic, I created big divides in close relationships by withholding communication on important topics.
By pretending to agree when I really didn’t, I set up relationships built on dishonesty and fakeness.
When I let people talk me into their points of view, I was unfaithful to myself.
Sometimes these experiences turned out to be valuable anyway. I tried on someone else’s viewpoint for a while—like trying on a dress four sizes too small—and then struggled my way out of it; I gradually discovered how and why it didn’t fit me.
But unlike trying on a too-small dress (or maybe not so unlike, depending on the dress), the struggle to get out of it was really painful: I had existential crises, questioning myself and everything I previously thought was true; I gave up innocent pursuits and hobbies that I had formerly drawn great delight from; and in many other ways I betrayed myself—all because I would not face the discomfort of disagreement, claim my autonomy over my own life, and simply speak up for my own opinions and perspectives.
A good friend, with whom I had several of these harmful flights from disagreement, stuck with me and has helped me start gaining the courage to stand up for myself and what I think. (Thank you, “Witness.”)
Along with courage, enduring disagreements also requires self-comfort in the moment when I’m tempted to run away from the discussion—I whisper to myself mentally, “You’re fine, it’s all okay.” I also have to remind myself that I am in control of my own life now, and I’m not in danger of being knocked down by other people’s persuasions.
And who knew? It turns out, it’s not so scary anymore to speak up and say what I think. In fact, it feels pretty good! Plus, when my friends don’t have to walk on eggshells with me, they can talk to me more freely and openly, and we have better, more fruitful conversations.
Still, it’s a process—three steps forward, two steps back. But it’s progress!
Conveniently, some recent pop songs reinforce this theme for me…
“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
scared to rock the boat and make a mess
so I’d sit quietly
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing
so I fell for everything”
— “Roar,” Katy Perry
“It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to”
— “We Can’t Stop,” Miley Cyrus
“Say what you wanna say
and let the words fall out
I wanna see you be brave”
— “Brave,” Sara Bareilles