Vulnerability in Disharmony

I don’t often mention to people I meet that I work at Marsh Chapel. One reason for this is the question that people will invariably ask me afterward: “Are you religious?” Or, an even trickier one: “Do you believe in God?” As much as I would like to answer these two questions, the truth is I haven’t really developed a full answer to either one yet.

But the other day, these questions did come up in conversation, when I ran into someone I knew at the Howard Thurman Center. He had mentioned that he went to a worship service on Easter weekend, so I asked him what experience with religion he had, if any.

Note to self: If you don’t want to answer a question, sometimes it is wise not to ask your conversation partner the exact same one, lest they end up reflecting it back at you.

This is what ended up happening. But rather than try to sidestep the question or change the subject (which I am prone to do, if you know me well enough–I do try to acknowledge when I do this, though), on this occasion I answered his question as truthfully as I could. We ended up chatting about faith and religion for a few minutes, and eventually we shifted to talking about science and religion, a topic I enjoy discussing a lot. He didn’t think that science and religion have different methods to answer similar questions, but he did say something that profoundly struck me: “I don’t like how much psychology has permeated society.”

This comment caught me by surprise. I had heard a sentiment like this expressed by one of my uncles before, but in that case it was just “I don’t like psychology.” My uncle had claimed that psychology was a science without much substance. Funnily enough, both of us happen to be in neuroscience, yet my opinion differs significantly with his on that one. But I digress.

I asked my friend to clarify what he meant by that, and he explained to me that he felt psychology gives  people ways to rationalize their own behaviors and motivations. In the process, it permits them to do nothing to change them. I replied that psychology is valuable because it’s difficult to change your behavior or grow in your perspectives if you don’t understand what they are to begin with, or where they come from. While we disagreed in our assessment of psychology’s value, he did have a point: knowing something about yourself allows you to be complacent if you do nothing to act accordingly with that knowledge. 

My friend challenged me to think about how willing people are to change their opinions even when they know where they come from, especially when they hear opinions or evidence they disagree with. He also commented on how current debates on identity and personal experience as forms of knowledge change our understanding of what truth is. He argued that there were moral principles of truth that hold regardless of personal experience, and that many of these principles are grounded by religion. My response was that a person’s experience informs what they believe in, and what people believe in are often principles that they think are true. That subjective, personal truth still has meaning, even if it may not be grounded in fact or align with broader moral principles guided by religion.

Throughout our conversation, I could tell that these issues mattered deeply to my friend–and that we had strikingly different opinions on them. Yet what moved me most about this conversation was that no matter how tense the conversation got, we were able to keep listening, pushing, and leaning on each other. By the end we had walked out of the Howard Thurman Center and parted ways with a handshake and a hug–a compromise that my friend came up with after we had talked about the kinds of greetings and interactions we like (my friend prefers handshakes, whereas I’m more prone to hug if I know someone and am comfortable being around them).

I can’t say for sure if we both walked away from that conversation with changed minds or changed perspectives. But I can say that for the hour or so in which we were talking to each other, we were able to be vulnerable with each other in expressing what each of us believed in. My respect for my friend has grown immensely because of that experience, even if we starkly disagreed about what we were discussing.

There is risk in disagreement–often it is much easier to pretend to agree for the sake of preserving harmony between people. But I believe that experiencing some discomfort and vulnerability in disharmony is healthy. That disruption of agreement allows us to open up, to take our thoughts in hand and reshape them with questions, and to truly expose our ideas to someone else’s. That was something that I experienced in conversation the other day, and I am glad to have encountered it. Maybe I should try sidestepping questions less in the future.

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