Sunday, August 5, 2007
The fine art of disagreement
I’ve always craved acceptance. Lots of times that translates to keeping my more unpopular ideas and opinions hidden from view. I’ve got plenty such thoughts that run counter to popular wisdom, causing me some worry about how truly anti-social I might be. When I feel most out of sync with people I care about, I tend to withdraw, stay safely hidden out of sight under cover of work and obligation, keeping friendships and dependencies intact by not exposing them to my “uglier” side.
When I’m out in the world and I hear someone make statements that resonate badly inside me, I tend to hold my tongue. Not always, of course. In technical matters, where I’m very confident of my level of expertise, I can generally make a convincing case against an idea on the table. And I have little trouble presenting views in situations that clearly call for an opinion, such as art, movie reviews, and restaurant wrap-ups.
My difficulty comes when I hear people make sweeping statements that I believe to be one-sided, self-serving, misguided. When what they present as “fact” doesn’t ring true with my experience, the sounds grate and my gut hurts – a most visceral experience. But at the same time, I doubt myself. I’m sure my opinions don’t have the power to sway them from their stance, and I wonder what right I have to question their beliefs. The end result is I keep my mouth shut. The stronger they appear to believe in what they’re saying, the more reluctant I am to present a counter argument.
My behavior is cowardly. I know where it comes from. I grew up in a household where only one person was allowed to hold strong views, and he was known to attack swiftly and viciously when he felt threatened. It wasn’t always safe for the rest of us to act or speak in ways that challenged my father’s dictates.
But I’m a grown up now. It’s time to get beyond the past. There should be other options. I should have learned by now how to dispassionately present a counter idea, to disagree graciously. And under normal circumstances, when I’m relaxed, I do have energy to gather my wits and present my opposing arguments calmly.
But these are not normal times. Cancer makes me cranky. More accurately, stress makes me cranky, and cancer makes me very, very stressed.
Now, more than ever, I find myself drawn into social situations beyond my comfort zone. Many friends and loved ones actively reach out to see how I am, how they can help me. They are concerned, and even want some reassurance for themselves that things are on course. I am touched and grateful for the contact, but lately it’s more frequent than I’m accustomed to. Much of my energy these days goes toward fighting the monster lodged in my lungs and adjusting to the poisons healing my body. I tire easily and don’t always have excess energy for extra human contact. As a result, I’ve also lost the ability to patiently listen to the same dissonant statements over and over, hold my tongue, and swallow my words.
The bottom line is, it’s easier than ever for me to blunder into a place where I lose my cool and sputter my disagreements most disagreeably. Yesterday, for example, at the annual family reunion picnic, I took issue with my brother over something he said that struck me as wrong. I’d heard the same story many times before without commenting, but yesterday, I simply couldn’t hold it. I wasn’t gentle or particularly kind. I just blurted out my truth and put him squarely on the defensive. He didn’t know what hit him.
To his credit, he admitted there might be some validity to what I said. He recognized that he was defensive, but acknowledged he’d think about it later, process it, and try to come away with something positive. I appreciate that he was able to see that.
For my part, my daughter helped me recognize there was much more force behind my arguments than necessary. Having good insights to share isn’t enough. To be taken seriously, I have to present those insights as ideas, not weapons. I hope to shed light with my arguments, but lashing out negates any good that might come from them.
This has been a difficult entry to write. I don’t like to make excuses for my behavior, and I don’t feel good about myself when I inflict pain. Lately, I find myself lacking the control to avoid either. So consider this an explanation, and if necessary, an apology.