Dear Fiona: Hold Yourself

Dear Fiona,

We’re deep into the weeds now, and I’d like to continue going deeper. In my last few letters I’ve written about being, knowing, and sharing yourself.

The concepts around these things are hard enough for most fully-grown adults to grasp. I don’t know how old you’ll be when you read these letters, but I guarantee you that it won’t be old enough to make this stuff easy. It never gets easy.

And yet, as complex as all of this is in theory, in practice it gets even harder, because in practice you’ll be trying to work through all of these thoughts while being bombarded with the needs and desires and wishes and opinions and beliefs of every single person in your life . . . all at once.

How do you hang onto your self in all of that? How do you share yourself without disappearing completely?

To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer . . . or rather, I suspect there is no single answer. The answer will be different for each person, because each person will have his or her own unique challenges, histories, subtexts, and internal monologues playing into the process.

I know that, for me, a big piece of it goes back to what I’ve written in a lot of my letters thus far about empathy, and what I wrote in one of the very first ones about truth.

You see, the biggest challenge for me in “holding onto myself” has been doing so when that self comes in conflict with the deeply held beliefs and opinions of people I value very much. It’s easy to SAY that one’s opinions and beliefs shouldn’t matter when it comes to loving and caring for another person, but shared worldviews and belief systems are at the heart of what makes a common culture, so when you’re challenging the beliefs and opinions of someone else, even in the context of a treasured relationship, you’re picking at the fabric of culture itself.

That’s not, in and of itself, an unhealthy thing . . . but it is a difficult one.

So the place I keep coming back to is empathy: Empathy for where someone is in their own journey. Empathy for the places I’ve been in mine. Empathy that doesn’t necessarily agree with what someone else believes and chooses to think or act on . . . but tries desperately to HEAR that other person, to hear their heart and their words and everything else that goes into the relationship I have with them.

I’ll tell you right now, some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had are the ones that involved telling the other person, not “I agree with you,” or “I disagree with you,” or even “I understand you” . . . but “I hear you.”

I think we’re hardwired to crave . . . not necessarily agreement, but . . . resolution, perhaps. Agreement, disagreement, and even understanding bring a sense of closure that isn’t necessarily provided with “I hear you.”

But I think that’s ok. Because as hard as it is, I think it’s ok for two people to be in relationship even when they’re not on the same page. I think two people, if they try hard enough, can disagree without harming their relationship. I think they can even maintain the relationship without fully understanding one another.

I don’t think they can do so without hearing each other.

How do we get there? How do we drive past the filters and barriers I talked about in my last letter about sharing yourself? How do we shut down our own filters and barriers and let someone in . . . even disagreeing with them . . . even knowing they disagree with us?

For me at least, that’s where what I wrote before about truth comes into play. I get there, myself, by realizing that even in a world where absolute truth exists (as I believe it does), my capacity to understand it is severely limited.

Most people, when they think of conflict in a world of absolute truths, see only a couple of possibilities. If we are in disagreement, that means that either:

I am objectively right and you are objectively wrong,

You are objectively right and I am objectively wrong, or

We are both objectively wrong.

Those who make room for a few more “shades of grey” might add another alternative:

I am partially right in certain areas or certain ways, and you are also partially right in other areas or other ways

Those who reject the notion of absolute truth altogether might add another:

I am subjectively right according to my perspective, and you are subjectively right according to your perspective

I’d like to propose yet another possibility:

I am objectively right, and you are also objectively right . . . but neither of us has grasped some external factor that resolves the apparent contradiction between our two beliefs.

Of course, that’s not going to be the case in every conflict or disagreement – perhaps not even in very many of them at all. But the mere possibility that it exists should give one pause. Because the notion that there are external factors yet to be considered . . . perhaps even cannot be considered given the limitations on human knowledge and perception . . . makes it highly possible – even likely – that anyone who believes they are objectively, absolutely, completely correct is mistaken.

Even if absolute truth exists.

Emergent theologian Brian McLaren, with whom I agree on many things and disagree on many others, wrote something very wise in this regard in one of his books. I don’t recall which book, or the exact wording of the quote, but it was something to the effect of: “I suspect that about 50% of what I believe at any given point in time is wrong.”

For McLaren, that meant holding what he believed tightly enough to defend it as true, so long as it was defensible, but holding it lightly enough to let it go when it became no longer defensible . . . not because the truth had changed, but because he had changed in his ability to comprehend and understand what was true.

What, though, does any of this have to do with you?

Simply this: Just because somebody says that something is true, that does not make it true.

Just because somebody desperately wants something to be true, that does not make it true.

Just because somebody else believes with every fiber of their being that something is true, that does not make it true.

Even when somebody has evidence purporting to back up what they believe is true, that does not necessarily make it true.

. . . even if that someone is me . . . and even if that someone is you. Just because you say, want, believe, or think you can prove something, does not make it true either.

You’ll have people all around you from day one claiming that you can’t rely on your own heart and mind to perceive and interact with and decide about the world around you. Those are the people who think they have a grasp on what is true . . . and some of them may even be right. But what they’ve failed to realize is that all of us – including they themselves – are relying on our own hearts and minds to perceive and interact with and decide about the world around us. All of us are grasping at whatever truth we can. Once in awhile, some of us even manage to find a bit of it.

They’ll tell you that they have objective evidence proving that what they believe is true, is true. But they’re relying on their own hearts and minds to perceive and interact with and interpret that evidence. They’ll tell you, no, others have already done the difficult work of interpreting it. But those others relied on their own hearts and minds to perceive and interact with and interpret it.

And deeper, and deeper, the rabbit hole goes.

Until at the heart of it all, all that’s left is the fact that someone, somewhere, used human intellect and understanding and emotion to grasp at something he or she believed to be true. And then, when things go deeper still, and someone tells you that a thing is true because God said it was true, they’re still failing to acknowledge the layers and translations and generations and iterations that true thing went through before it got to them, and from them, to you.

Does that mean God doesn’t exist? Or that His words and thoughts and guidance are meaningless?

Not at all! But it does mean that we have to dig through thousands and thousands of minds and fingers and pens that have been over it since.

So if someone tells you they know for certain that something is absolutely and unquestionably true because God said it, they may be right. They may be wrong. They are almost certainly overconfident.

At the root of it all, this is one of the many reasons why I want to raise you to be a strong, wise woman, capable of reasoned, intelligent decisions on your own behalf, and caring and empathetic toward those around you. Because if someone, somewhere is going to use their limited human capacity for understanding to interpret what may or may not be true, I’d rather it be someone with the depth of understanding to know what she doesn’t know. If someone, somewhere is going to attempt to work through human emotion to arrive at truth, I’d rather she do so with empathy.

If someone is going to work out for you what is or is not even the tiniest bit true, it might as well be you, working it out for yourself.

And if, at the end of the day, your own heart is all you have to go on, I want to do whatever I can to help you learn to listen to it, and listen well.

Love,
~Dad

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