My wife Erin and I were in a fairly significant car accident Friday night when a pickup truck ran a red light. While we are banged up pretty well, we are alive – and that’s generally not something you think much about less than a week before the holidays. Ironically, the day before that I spoke with a woman whose husband had been rear ended on his way home from work and his car totaled. My conversation partner was on her way to look for a replacement car because they had planned to drive seven hours with their children to their holiday destination. Erin and I had to cancel our holiday trip a mere five and one half hours away because we were going to be able to get our car replaced in time for our trip. What are the odds that I would encounter someone who would foreshadow our holiday turn of events just one day later?
Last week I read a blog post in which the author advised everyone to reconcile over the holidays with any family members from whom they are estranged. Their reasoning was rooted in a rather Pollyanna understanding of interpersonal behavior and a mythic understanding of the holidays. I remember thinking what an absolute load of nonsense the post was when I read it, mostly because such views give a free pass to people who abuse others. It’s one thing to look past petty disagreements. I am all for that practice. It’s quite another to slide into denial about legitimate grievances because of some pie in the sky understanding of the magic of Christmas.
What I do want to recommend in light of my accident is that you be sure to tell the people you love that you love them over the holidays, and every day, because the truth is that we don’t know if we will see each other again. Life might be taken from us at any moment, and that is also why we shouldn’t gloss over serious disagreements. When we pretend that it’s acceptable for you to have abused me, what we are really doing is saying my life isn’t worth all that much. That does everyone a disservice, and no amount of fairytale holiday bliss can justify it.
Imagine if we wished one another an authentic holiday, a holiday season in which we told the people we loved that we love them and also honored everyone’s integrity by being honest about our disagreements, too. We might also commit to be honest with one another and to value that honesty over any misguided notion that our job is to protect the feelings of others at the expense of our integrity.
When I was a kid, which I must now confess was a few decades ago, We were taught things like debate, argumentation, and persuasive writing. Those things have gradually disappeared from schools in America, and the result is plain to see. Quite simply, we no longer know how to construct an argument and we no longer are embarrassed if we are dishonest in our attempts to do so. This is as true in the private sector as the public.
I was sent a theological paper a few days ago that was an excellent example of this. It was filled with short quotes from the individual it criticized, taken out of context, while accusing him of taking things out of context. The author obviously hadn’t done a good job of researching her “opponent,” because she accused him of “making up” ideas that have been existence for over one thousand years. The list went on and on. When I learned how to construct arguments and write papers, my teachers would have given this paper an “F” and its author would have hung her head in shame. The fact that the kinds of teachers who taught us these important skills no longer exist is glaringly obvious, the impact on our communication abilities and public discourse beyond obvious.
We have come to believe that knowing facts, mostly in the hard sciences, is much more important that being able to communicate them effectively. What we say and how we say it matters. In fact, it matters more than whether or not we win an argument because it speaks to a much more fundamental and important value, our integrity. It is much more important to be able to live with ourselves than to accumulate victories. If you doubt that, just ask Charlie Sheen.
Billy Joel was right, not only about love but also about spiritual and religious circles – though he may not have had that in mind when he wrote his song.
There is a practice that I have seen both in Newage* circles and in Evangelical circles of blatant dishonesty about the ideas and even the integrity of other teachers and preachers. If you run in the motivational speaker/Chicken Soup book circles, the odds are you do nothing but heap praise on others in those circles. According to these folks, everyone is wonderful at everything they do. Indeed, some of them are. Others mostly push content that is rather vacuous, largely rehashed and diluted ideas from long ago. The problem is that when everyone says everything is wonderful, people tend to believe them and go out an spend their hard earned money on books and conferences that are largely newage.
In Evangelical circles, particularly the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggert circles, the same sort of things happen on a regular basis. I have seen it for myself. Almost every one of these high profile organizations gets hit with a scandal sooner or later, and they run to each other’s defense – especially if the person currently in the fire stood behind others when they were in the fire. I have witnessed these discussions. The problem here is even worse than it is in newage circles, because quite often what is being covered up and dismissed is serious misconduct that is abusive toward those the offender is supposed to be serving. If you think that only the large denominations traffic in cover ups, you are fooling yourself.
What we need in all corners of our world is a lot more honesty, no matter what the consequences may be. This may cause some sort term discomfort, but it will protect people from getting hurt by the unqualified and disqualified charlatans posing as authentic teachers and leaders. Imagine what might happen if we went so far as to require honesty from politicians!
*I borrow the term “Newage,” which rhymes with “sewage,” from Lama Surya Das to distinguish between solid and dubious New Age teaching.