Disengage Over Disagreement?

I’ve been noticing how easy it is to have unity and good feelings towards others when conflict is absent but how quickly warm feelings vanish when there’s a simple difference of opinion. As a general rule, I don’t think it’s right to cut people off from our lives due to a disagreement. Yet it happens all of the time in marriages, friendships, employment, churches and other relationships. It’s amplified when intolerance of opinion is not only justified but embraced systematically in the forms of group-shaming and other dehumanizing purges. Tolerance vs purging. Inclusion vs exclusion. Freedom vs oppression. Understanding vs ignorance. The olive branch vs the sword. Love & forgiveness vs anger & bitterness. These are some of the choices we face when we have differences of opinions with others. 

Have our past convictions been so flawless that we can, with confidence, state that our current convictions are beyond question? Do we have all of the facts and perspectives that would make us capable of judging a topic competently? Is our moral arsenal so complete that even if we had a full understanding of the facts that we would be able to make a rightful judgement? Is it our right to judge? In other words, are we perfect? If not, why do we expect others to have the same convictions as we do? Other’s possess perspectives that can help refine our own, if we will search their minds with an open heart. Purging people tends to make their ignorance worse and therefore the likelihood of misery worse. Loving people, despite our differences, can make incremental advances towards love, truth, completeness and fulfillment. Thank goodness we all have different perspectives.

“Ah, but what about the nihilist?”, says one? “Or what about the racial supremacist?”, objects another. “Are we to embrace these nasty ideologies?” Objections to tolerance are constantly made on the grounds that it is condoning symptomatic ideas and behaviors. But tolerance is not condoning anymore than listening is agreeing. We can love the sinner and still hate the sin. 

Daryl Davis was able to convert over 200 people away from the KKK, including multiple upper-level leaders of the group. What makes this feat most meaningful is the fact that Daryl is an African American, the target of much of the group’s intolerance and violence. His success hasn’t come from shunning, screaming, deplatforming, ignoring, fighting or any other form of purging. Rather, Daryl reached out, talked with, listened to and befriended some of the very people who initially viewed him as inferior. These actions ultimately humanized his race to a large segment of an organization that society had thought irredeemable. His kind actions dispelled the darkness that clouded these people’s minds. That light was not and could not have been instilled through dark methods. 

Daryl observed a timeless lesson about the importance of actively trying to understand each other during an interview he had with a few of the KKK members. No violent intentions were being expressed during their meeting but tensions were still high. Neither trusted the other. All of a sudden, a loud noise occurred that startled Daryl. He was afraid that one of the other two was making a quick movement to hurt him. As he glanced at the others, he noticed the same startled look on their faces – they were on high alert that something might happen to them. It turned out that the noise was just a can of soda settling in a bucket of ice next to them. Daryl associated layers of meaning from this incident by pointing out that: “Ignorance breeds fear. We fear those things we don’t understand. If we don’t put a lid on that fear and keep that fear in check, that fear in turn will breed hatred because we hate those things that frighten us. If we don’t keep that hatred in check, that hatred in turn will breed destruction. We want to destroy those things that we hate. Why? Because they frighten us. But guess what? They may have been harmless and we were just ignorant.” 

Take parenting as another example of how seeking understanding can make everyone’s lives better. Many parents will play behavioral whack-a-mole with their children not understanding that their attempts to correct their children’s behavior could actually be making things worse for the child and requiring more energy on their part overall. In order to help children, or anyone for that matter, long-term successes are tied to the means in which the corrections are consistently, patiently and lovingly applied. A parent will see a child acting out – yelling, crying and throwing a tantrum when they don’t get what they want – and the parent often responds, usually with good intentions, with authoritarian dictates or force (or in some cases, rewarding the child for the bad behavior). None of this helps because none of it is getting to the root of the issue. The child’s tantrum is a symptom. The symptom is an opportunity to stop and dig deeper into why that child is acting out to begin with. Perhaps their love-tank has been running on empty for an extended period of time and what they really need, instead of lectures and punishments, is genuine attention that is meaningful to them. Or perhaps they were bullied, abused or they made a critical mistake and they are too afraid to raise a sensitive topic up to someone who will make them feel smaller than they already do. Or perhaps they’ve been conditioned to behave this way from others who constantly give in to those styles of demands. The root causes will vary almost as much as there are different personalities and circumstances. What is not needed, though, is ridiculing or verbally discarding that child because of their behavior. What is always needed is love, understanding and appropriate boundaries.

Just like there are boundaries for many other good things (e.g. charity, freedom), there are boundaries to tolerance as well. First, as mentioned previously, we ought to separate the sinner from the sin. Always viewing a person through the lens of love and choices through the lens of truth helps us to not debase each other to varying degrees of worth. Second, if someone’s choices are aggressing on someone else, those breaches don’t have to be tolerated. We can and should forgive and have mercy but that doesn’t mean that we need to continually put up with abuse. As an exception to the general rule to be tolerant, there are occasions where we can admit that another’s actions have actually severed their bond to us. After agressions are repeated so often and after so many petitions to stop, the only choices left are to cut yourself off from the abuser (if escape is possible) or fight back (if escape is not possible). Though, as was the case with Daryl Davis, this doesn’t mean that we should stop extending the olive branch. The behaviors of those who we perceive to be hopeless are often just symptoms of deeper problems that can be healed with our patience and love. The problem is that most of us jump straight to the exception (of separation) rather than living the rule (of tolerance).

Too Far Gone

 

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Marj was my last English professor. I attended her course for the first few classes and then I stopped going. After about 6 weeks, I was talking with a friend about my absence and how I regretted quitting the class. He encouraged me to reach out to her to see if it was too late for me to go back. I said “There’s no way she’ll take me back.” He responded, “What do you have to lose?” So I emailed her and she responded that it was absolutely not too late and that she’d love for me to return. I attended regularly to the end after that. 

Unlike previous English teachers, Marj actually taught us principles of good writing and she taught them to us through our own interests. That’s how she helped everyone discover the light within themselves. Every other English teacher I had before her seemed to have the same social cause that they imposed upon us. Marj encouraged each of us to read, research and write about topics that were meaningful to us individually. She would work with us one on one to guide and mentor our efforts along the way. 

She loved and respected everyone in the class and, those of us who would open up to her, loved and respected her back. I remember during one of her lessons she was talking about her son in law. When she first met him, she disregarded him because of his outer appearance. She didn’t approve of his hair, piercings or the way he dressed. She told us about her regret that she had judged his outer appearance, especially after discovering his inner kindness, humility and character. As she recounted this story, there was no judgement in her voice. Only genuine love and compassion. The humility it took to publicly admit this fault only added to our trust and respect for her.

These experiences with Marj taught me valuable lessons about following Christ’s teachings and example:

His Grace is Sufficient – Before Marj, my writing was deplorable. C-letter grades were common from my English teachers up until that point. If you were to read my writing, you’d see that my teachers were being merciful. I left Marj’s class with an A and not just because she was a softy. My final paper was submitted to an external writing competition by Marj and another professor in the department. I don’t write this to brag but to emphasize the principle that when we receive the Perfect Mentor’s help, it produces results we can’t produce on our own. We are weak without his help. Critical problems are impossible to overcome without the guidance, empowerment and strength of the Savior.

Don’t Judge – Like Marj, before she repented, many of us have wrongfully passed judgement on others when we’ve had no right to do so. Man looketh on the outward appearance but the Lord looketh on the heart. The Great Judge requires that we have mercy, love and forgiveness for others. Jesus said, “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it’s required to forgive all men.” He also taught us to “Judge not” and that “Judgement is mine“. 

Pride Repels, Humility Invites – Marj’s humility made it easier to connect with her. My other English teachers spoke at us but rarely truly connected with us. When someone is prideful, it’s difficult to build an open and trusting relationship with them because you know that everything you do or say will be received with condescension and belittlement. No one is perfect but yet everyone acts so, to some degree, through their pride. The only perfect person to live on Earth invited others to come closer to him, not only through his words but also through his humble treatment of others. I suspect that the sinners who ate with Christ were happy to be in his company because they knew that despite their shortcomings, he still humbly loved them.

Love Mercifully – Marj’s mercy towards me, after missing so much of the semester, did more good for me than the proverbial sword would have done. I recently learned about a marriage therapist who can predict with over 90% accuracy whether new marriages will end in divorce. The number one indicator is to see whether one or both of the spouses have contempt for the other. When we have contempt, we despise and don’t respect the other person. We cling to the sword as we justify to ourselves why the other person is in the wrong and why our rotten feelings towards them are justified. The Savior didn’t hold anyone in contempt. Even for those who falsely accused, arrested and crucified him, he advocated on their behalf. The world might see such mercy as impractical but consider how many lives have been spared and elevated because of its application. Contrast that to how many souls that have been destroyed because of the proverbial sword. The swords of shame, criticism, judgement and contempt are heavy burdens being lugged around by so-called “pragmatists” who refuse to exchange their burden for the lighter olive branch. The olive branch, as hard as it can be to hold when we perceive wrongdoing from others, is so much more effective than the sword at convincing others to repent, resolving conflict between people and bringing inner peace amidst life’s storms.

The Whole Don’t Need A Physician – On multiple occasions I’ve heard people express that “so-and-so” shouldn’t be going to church because of “fill-in-the-blank” sins that they’ve committed. When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with publicans and sinners they repeated the same sentiment. Jesus responded that “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick… I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The church is a hospital for the spiritually sick. The gospel is treatment for the spiritually sick. The Savior is the Great Healer. Much like my unfounded fear that I wouldn’t be accepted back into Marj’s class, sometimes we may convince ourselves that we’re too far gone and that our Perfect Exemplar won’t take us back. None of us are perfect. We’re all spiritually sick and lacking. We can take today as an opportunity to reset our perspectives and consider how we can return to a loving, inviting, unshaming Savior. He’s ready with open arms to receive each one of us. What do you have to lose?

The Beggar & The Three Travelers: Adding To The Golden & Platinum Rules

Beggar WaterThere’s an ancient proverb about The Beggar and The Three Travelers. It’s a hot, dry day. A man is begging in the streets of a city. Another man, dressed in a yellow robe, is traveling through and sees the beggar. Before the beggar could ask for anything, the man gives him the last of his favorite nuts and then continues on his way. A while later, a second traveler dressed in a gray robe sees the beggar and asks what he wants. The beggar says that above all, he would like some wine to help him cool down from the day’s heat. The traveler obliges, gives him wine and continues on his way. A third traveler, dressed in a white robe, assesses the needs of the man, gives him a drink of water and helps him find a continual source of water before continuing on his way. The beggar was allergic to nuts and would have died if he had eaten them. He was also dying of dehydration and the alcohol would have sped up his demise. What he truly needed wasn’t what another person wanted for him nor was it what he wanted for himself. He simply needed water. 

This proverb isn’t ancient. I just made it up. But it illustrates a timeless principle – the need to rise above the limited perspectives of desires when serving others and instead look at needs. The story depicts three ways which we can treat others:

  • The Golden Rule: I will treat others the way I want to be treated.
  • The Platinum Rule: I will treat others the way they want to be treated.
  • The Celestial Rule: I will treat others the way they ought to be treated.

The Golden Rule is commendable. My one year old son recently offered me a soggy animal cracker that he was sucking on with an innocent “It’s good, you’ll like it” expression on his face. His intentions were good. He wanted to share his joy with me. I admit – when I give gifts – I do the same thing. I often give others what I want them to have rather than what they want. I wonder how often they perceive my offerings with the same humored disgust that I felt with the soggy animal cracker. There’s a better way to give.

Living the Platinum Rule means that we escape our own self-centered perspective and see the thoughts, emotions and desires of others from their perspective. Once we do this, we are better equipped to empathize and provide others with what they want. When it comes to harmless offerings, the Platinum Rule is the way to go. But it definitely has its shortfalls. When what a person wants for themselves is unhealthy – physically, emotionally or spiritually – then we should not be giving that person that thing. There’s an even better way to give in these cases.

The Celestial Rule means that we perceive others through the lens of the higher law. The higher law requires that we treat others the way that they ought to be treated within the bounds of tactful, loving kindness. For example, when someone is going through a difficult time, some people will express their sympathies in ways that make it about themselves rather than the person going through the difficult problem (Golden Rule). Others will act as enablers and give the person attention in a way the person wants but this is unhealthy when it feeds negative energy and grants permission to the person to see their problems through the lens of victimhood or helplessness. This is an example of how the Platinum Rule falls short. The Celestial Rule helps us to see the struggling person through the lens of love and the circumstances surrounding their struggles through the lens of truth. When that happens we can, like Christ, empathize with their pain and provide empowering guidance for healing – all in a spirit of love.

Personal Development Zones – The Roles and Limits of Rest & Stressors

Roger Bannister Four Minute Mile

In order for muscles to grow, they need to be put under repeated stress to the point that they tear. After muscles tear, with proper nourishment and rest, they repair stronger than before. The frequency by which they’re put under weight determines the level of strength the muscles can eventually bear.

Like our bodies, our minds and character are antifragile (a term coined by Nassim Taleb) which means that when put under stress, they grow stronger. Contrast things that are antifragile to those which are fragile or robust. Fragile things, like glass mugs, break under stress. Robust things, like the mythical Phoenix, neither benefit nor are they destroyed from fire. Antifragile things, like the mythical Hydra, benefit from conflict. Friedrich Nietzsche argued that people are antifragile when he wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

There’s a lot of truth to what Taleb and Nietzsche teach us about the role stressors play in human development and there are limits to how severe stressors can be before they go from being antifragile to fragile. Going back to the muscle analogy, in order for weight to build muscle, it needs to push a person beyond what they’re comfortable bearing but too much weight or frequency can be destructive. Torn connective tissue, broken or dislocated bones, heat exhaustion, brain aneurysms or other physical harm can result from over-exertion.

Just as there many who still believe “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, there’s an increasing trend to accept the debilitating philosophy that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. It’s this mentality that, according to authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, is leading to a culture that is becoming increasingly unable to bear the struggles that life inevitably brings. Higher rates of depression and suicide are evidence of an overprotective culture, according to Lukianoff and Haidt. The notions of “Safe Spaces”, “Trigger Warnings” and “Microaggressions” are a few examples of the level of protectionism that the rising generation are embracing from well-intentioned “intellectuals”. In their co-written book, Coddling of the American Mind, they point out:

“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”

In addition:

“Parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from ‘figure out how to solve this conflict on your own’ to ‘invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises’.”

They also observed that overprotective parenting and teaching “come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.”

Various mental models, such as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, have been created that can help us understand the role that stressors and limits can play in our development. The following diagram serves as a way to visualize the roles and limits that rest and stressors play in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual personal development.

Personal Development Zones

Each of us have our own comfort zone – the level to which we feel familiar, comfortable and relaxed with certain things. Rest and healing happen here but growth does not. Each of us have a growth zone – the level to which we are able to bare particular stressors – whether it’s handling a difficult task at work, learning a new subject, public speaking, dealing with loss or anything else that stretches us beyond our comfort zone. This zone is where we grow. Each of us also have a destructive zone – the level to which stressors are causing more harm than we can bare or sustainably endure. Each of us are different and will therefore have varying limits within our comfort and growth zones.

To the person experiencing hardship now, the destructive zone appears much closer than it usually is. Much like the weight-lifter who doesn’t think they can lift another rep, their physical limit is usually beyond what their mind is telling them it is. Humanity’s ability to run a four-minute mile, previously a perceived impossibility, became an exponential recurrence once Roger Bannister did it 1954. To the person who sees their trials with the benefit of hindsight, the destructive zone can usually be clearly seen to be beyond what they thought it was when they were experiencing it.

Analyzing how children learn how to read provides another example for how the personal development zones are applicable. Reading comprehension expands as children read just beyond (growth zone) what their current reading level (comfort zone) is. Introducing a child to reading material that is too advanced (destructive zone) can backfire and cause the child to be discouraged, not learn or give up. Academically, these zones are referred to as the independent, guided and frustration reading levels.

Perspective plays a major role in which zone we’re in. After the devastating war had ended between the Lamanites and Nephites, in Alma 62 we learn that many of the Nephites were hardened by the weight and duration of their hardships. Had I been through their experience, I probably would have been too. Conversely, many were softened and humbled themselves before God. What made the difference between these two groups? Their experiences appear the same but their outcomes are opposites. Choice plays an essential role in how we come out on the other side of hardship. It’s not about how strong we, by ourselves, can be during trials. We are weak creatures. We need God for strength and healing. The difference comes by choosing to depend on God over ourselves for strength and endurance.

After nearly four months of being falsely imprisoned in Liberty Jail during the Missouri winter and with little food or means to stay warm, the Lord revealed to a discouraged Joseph Smith the expanse of the growth zone:

“If thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

The distance between where our comfort zone ends and where the destructive zone begins is where growth happens. If we spend our whole life in the comfort zone, we’ll be weak, dependent, afraid and ignorant. We’ll atrophy physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. If we spend time in the destructive zone, we’ll be burnt out, bitter and broken. If we want to be better, stronger, happier and more fulfilled, we need to regularly stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

The comfort and growth zones have current limits but they’re also expandable over time. As our muscles tear under stress, with rest (comfort zone), they regenerate stronger and are able to withstand more weight later. Likewise, after our minds and spirits are stretched for certain weights and frequencies, and after time has been made for renewal, the degree to which our minds and spirits can withstand stressors increases. Growth requires strength and energy. Strength and energy require regular renewal. God rested after six days of labor. He created the Sabbath for our renewal, rest and benefit. Our mortal bodies are designed to require about a third of our day in an unconscious, restful state. The Earth goes through similar cycles annually as the seasons repeat the growth, rest and renewal stages. We can’t and shouldn’t constantly have our bow strings strung tight. All things must be done with wisdom, order and diligence but we should pace ourselves lest we run faster than we have strength.

To add to the long list of opposite periods of time that we encounter in life – To every thing there is a season – I’ll also add that there is a time for growth, and a time for renewal. The philosophy “go big or go home” is an enemy to progress. It’s unsustainable. It serves as the mantra for the newly energized zealot who is about to burn out. Or it’s the excuse of the person who doesn’t want to leave their comfort zone at all. Progress happens one step (and often failure) at a time when we frequent the growth zone.

The benefits that trials can provide were depicted eloquently when Chief Justice John Roberts broke the commencement-speech-norm at his son’s 9th grade graduation by, instead of well-wishing the graduates, he expressed the following:

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

Questions To Consider:

  • What are some hardships I’ve experienced that I can learn from?
  • How do I find the line between the growth zone and the destructive zone? What signals do I notice when I’m pushing myself too hard?
  • What signals do I notice when I’ve been in the comfort zone too long?
  • What areas of life do I need to scale back on?
  • What areas of life do I need to stretch myself in?
  • What are some ways that I can unwind?
  • What are my most dreaded fears that I have control over? Those fears are likely ones I can face.
  • Are there any reminders I can schedule to practice leaving my comfort zone?

Conviction Spectrum

Conviction Spectrum