© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The Joy of Giving Up / cyhmn? 8

walkingaway4309I started this series-about-Facebook-within-a-series-about-communication by describing an exchange with two normal, non-crazy, hearable and listenable religious friends. I wanted to show (1) that most religious people are, in fact, normal, non-crazy, hearable and listenable, (2) that it’s best to assume someone is all those things until proven otherwise, and (3) that time spent communicating thoughtfully with such friends is time well spent.

On the other hand, I do know many people of religious and nonreligious persuasions for whom no amount of care or thoughtful message crafting justifies the time spent at the potter’s wheel. This post is about giving one’s self permission to recognize pointlessness and walk away, with a smile, before throwing good time and effort after bad.

A recent exchange on Facebook with an old friend — I’ll call him Aaron — illustrates the point.

Though I came to discover a huge gulf between our worldviews since last we met (during the Carter Administration), I doubt very much that Aaron is crazy. I might very well enjoy time in his company as I once did. He has a perfect right to his opinions and to the expression of same. It’s true that I wish fewer people believed as Aaron apparently does. But I think engaging Aaron on religious and related questions offers only an amazing facsimile of actual accomplishment, and that the invested time and energy would be better spent on other things. Like cleaning my gutters.

My exchange with Aaron began when I posted this in my Facebook status:

Congratulations Greg Epstein on the release of “Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People DO Believe.” Sure to be a fine contribution.

Aaron replied

Mr. Epstein is a “Humanist Rabbi”. Isn’t that a little like being an Amish auto-mechanic, lol?

I remember having exactly the same blinkered reaction the first time I heard about Humanistic Judaism ten years ago. Why fault Aaron for being where I once was? So I started with a little empathy, then gave a context for reconsidering:

Hi Aaron! Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn’t it? But 40,000 Secular Humanistic Jews (among others) have understood and embraced it for two generations. Anyone interested in these questions beyond the LOL should read Greg’s book to see how people without theistic beliefs satisfy the same human needs that have traditionally been addressed by religion.

Aaron saw an opening:

Very respectfully Dale, a casual look at the mess-of-a-world around us, in the news, and on talk shows is ample indication of how people have sought satisfaction and fulfillment apart from accountability to the Bible. I think it was Napolean who said, “People will believe anything as long as it isn’t in the Bible”.

At this point I have some choices. Do I challenge his assertion that the world is a mess? Do I challenge the idea that a drift from Biblical accountability is responsible for what mess there is? Do I point out that the Bible has inspired its fair share of the mess? Correct his spelling of Napoleon? Tell him the quote is actually, “People will believe anything as long as you whisper it to them” and was only changed later, and that it was more likely said by trial lawyer Louis Nizer before being reverse-engineered to Napoleon and readapted to the Bible? Do I point out that the whole tired “mess-of-a-world” trope is refuted by the fact that crime across the board is at the lowest level in modern history?

To answer these, answer this: What result am I after?

Ten years ago I would have started with, “Oh Aaron, Aaron. Where do I even begin?”—then gone after every single one of those points in as superior a voice as possible. In the end, I’d imagine him lying in a pool of cyber-blood.

But most of us eventually notice that winning an argument requires that the vanquished recognize his defeat. Sure enough, time after time, I would be amazed and incensed when the other person — apparently unaware of his demise — came back with more nonsense.

I came to realize that these exchanges accomplish precisely nothing but lost time and gained blood pressure. He comes back, I reply, again and again. We consult our mutually-exclusive rulebooks to see who’s winning. And oh how the pretty painted ponies go round and round.

I want those hours back.

xkcdWorse yet, if there’s an audience, such as Facebook friends, a poorly-toned or twelve-point reply can look to the non-choir like so much intellectual bullying. It’s just too much to process as anything else.

One option, rarely taken, is to not reply at all. But but but I have the perfect argument, we say. It’s ever so compelling and irrefutable. Go shout your brilliance into a bucket. Better yet, go find Bob and Andrea. If you proceed thoughtfully, it’s possible to bring a conversation with those two (and most of their fellow reasonables) to an actual conclusion. I may be wrong, but I suspect there is neither end nor purpose to continuing with Aaron. That’s no cause for rudeness or personal disrespect — just an invitation to be done.

So what did I do? I continued anyway. As it happened, I had a minute. My gutters were already clean, and I like to test my own hypotheses about these exchanges. But I continued without illusions. I didn’t unleash a deafening point-by-point but chose a third option: the (potentially) hearable reply.

The hearable reply includes two elements: at least one point of agreement, and ONLY ONE solid, well-supported point of difference:

I share your concern about the mess-of-a-world, Aaron, in a big way. So does Greg. But I think the “casual glance” at causation is precisely what leads us off the mark. Some of the mess is certainly fueled by non-Biblical causes; another large percentage specifically stems from biblical or other religious inspiration. (I’ll assume you don’t need a list.) The best things we can do is get all of us who are concerned with making the world a better place working together instead of drawing lines that divide us.

Another friend forced my hand on a second point, noting that the world in many ways is not more of a mess than before. I agreed with her and offered a link from the US Dept of Justice showing that violent crime is actually at the lowest rate ever.

Aaron was in for a pound:

Terrorism was not in our thoughts a generation ago. Concern for our security and identity, and the measures we need to take to safeguard them, has increased. Carjacking. Pornography. Sex trade. Human and child trafficking. Slave trade. School dropouts. Teen pregnancy. Single-parent households….Increase of welfare as a lifestyle. As the Bible predicted, men will call what is bad as good, and call what is good as bad… I’m reading a terrif book called “The Truth War” by John MacArthur. In his first chapter on Post-Modernism…

At this point I have plenty of evidence that there’s not much to be gained by continuing. He is so deeply siloed that he is unlikely to be able to hear it. More importantly, there’s something to be lost if I look like a bully. I reposted the link he had ignored, mostly so others could see it, and let those who wished to do so fence on.

I used to walk away from these threads only after countless hours of escalating aggravation. Then I began to experience the joy of giving up — the liberating feeling of walking out of pointless exchanges early, with a friendly tip of my hat, my pockets brimming with unexpended arguments and witty retorts, to spend my time and energy hearing others and being heard by them. I don’t always manage it, but when I do, I’m damn proud of my great big grownup self.

coda211002Interesting coda: One of those who continued in discourse with Aaron, gently challenging him for another few rounds, was a friend of mine who I know to be actively religious. If I had bullied Aaron, or appeared to do so, it’s likely that Joseph never would have joined in. By taking a bit of care, I had made it possible for a religious moderate to find more common cause with me than with Aaron. I’ll call that a positive result.

(Comic by the matchless xkcd, through which all life stands explained. Hat tip to blotzphoto!)
[The complete Can You Hear Me Now? series]

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This was written on Tuesday, 17. November 2009 at 09:44 and was filed under action, belief and believers, Can You Hear Me Now?, critical thinking, diversity, fear, nonbelief and nonbelievers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. An interesting post, Dale. Certainly, a lesson I have yet to completely take on board.

    You remind me of two things I’ve seen recently. One is a bit of very old wisdom, which I shared on my blog today – a snippet of Stoic philosophy from Marcus Aurelius: “Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet; when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice.” (From his Meditations, which I highly recommend.)

    The other is a bit of very new knowledge – this psychological study finding that adolescents are more likely to act to increase their aggravation (“contra-hedonic affect”, in the study’s language) than older people, and that seeking to improve one’s mood, or to mitigate aggravation (“prohedonic”) is more common in old age.

    So we should all tend to get better at following the advice you share as we age.

    And no, this is not some fancy science-geeky way of calling you an old fart.

    Comment: TimMills – 17. November 2009 @ 11:21 am

  2. Summed up neatly in stick person form

    http://xkcd.com/386/

    I’ve had to essentially “silence” one of my Facebook friends (by hiding his postings) because he was just infuriating me. I was really at the risk of ruining a good relationship due do stark political differences, he’s a Randian Libertarian and I’m sane. Thanx for pointing out my folly Dale. Permission to give up is a great gift.

    Comment: blotzphoto – 17. November 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  3. Is there ANYTHING that xkcd hasn’t already explained more brilliantly than I could? Why, oh why do I blog at all? Thanks blotz! I’ve added it to the post. (Thanks also for “he’s a Randian Libertarian and I’m sane.” Delicious.)

    Comment: Dale – 17. November 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  4. Not a parent, but I am an atheist, and this is an epiphany for me. It’s amazing to think that I just needed permission to walk away from these things, and to do it without throwing a grenade over my shoulder, but this post really does that for me. Such a simple idea… but it actually give me the ability to keep some relationships because I’ve found the terms to do it.

    Now to see if I can actually do it.

    Comment: rachel61 – 17. November 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  5. This reminds me of when a friend of mine who eats only raw food told me about a great raw food cookbook she had just gotten, and I noted the irony and LOLed. Only she just laughed in response.

    I don’t know Aaron, and that probably makes a difference, but I’m curious as to why his joke made you launch? I’m not convinced he was trying to make you launch or even that he was being anything other than jokey. (I wonder if he started his next post, “respectfully” because he saw you were ready to make the joke into something bigger…)

    You say you started with being empathetic, but I can’t seem to read “Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn’t it?” in a way that sounds empathetic.

    And your “context for reconsidering” I’m not sure about either. As I read it, you decided to school him (I say “school” and not “educate” since you didn’t tell him *anything* about humanistic Judaism that might make him understand it or the value you see in it. Rather, you just kind of did a sort of argumentum ad populum –“But 40,000 Secular Humanistic Jews (among others) have understood and embraced it for two generations.” If my friend had decided to educate me on raw food instead of just laughing, would it have made any difference to me if she told me, “Well, 60,000 people in the US have embraced eating raw food for two generations!” No. It doesn’t help me at all.

    I’m wondering why you chose that approach? Did you do that because you had already assumed he wasn’t going to listen to an explanation? It feels to me like you’re already shutting him off.

    And then you followed with “Anyone interested in these questions beyond the LOL should read Greg’s book to see how people without theistic beliefs satisfy the same human needs that have traditionally been addressed by religion” –which sounds dismissive of Aaron and barely antagonistic. My friend Aaron is interested in the LOL of it all, but you others should read this stuff. (I would love to see you use “could” more instead of “should”.)

    I think by the time you get to your “hearable reply” he’s already stopped listening because you already slapped him and he is in fighting mode.

    I know your friend Joseph may not have thought you were bullying, but your other friend Song saw it differently.

    Lots to think about as always.

    Comment: Song – 17. November 2009 @ 6:26 pm

  6. […] The Joy of Giving Up / CYHMN? 8 – The question becomes, what is the most useful level of engagement. Walking away from everyone who disagrees with you arguably makes problems worse. Doing a rhetorical cost-benefit analysis (and giving the benefit side a bit of the benefit of the doubt) is probably a useful approach. […]

    Pingback: Unblogged Bits for Tuesday, 17 November 2009 | ***Dave Does the Blog – 17. November 2009 @ 7:02 pm

  7. @Song: “Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn’t it?” isn’t empathetic? Seriously, what are you smoking, and why are you smoking it HERE? I won’t bother with the rest of your pointless trolling. If you see bullying in that simple exchange, you’ve clearly never been truly bullied nor done it yourself — or you’re just throwing wrenches. Those of us who’ve been in both positions and would like to do better want a chance to think and talk without tripping on trolls. Do you mind?

    Comment: rachel61 – 17. November 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  8. Rachel, it really is best in the long run to not feed them. It’s clear from other comments that this one is alone in his/her strange interpretations, so leave it.

    Comment: DwayneInSpain – 17. November 2009 @ 10:17 pm

  9. After reading this blogs for months and enjoying this particular series so much, I finally registered to ask how to walk away from goading. It’s one thing when there’s just a difference of opinion, like your example with Aaron, but what do you do when the other person is specifically attacking you, questioning your reasoning, or misrepresenting what you said. THOSE are the endless treadmills I get caught in — constantly correcting misrepresentations of ME. How do you walk away from that?

    Then it suddenly hit me: Dale is taking his own advice right now by not getting drawn into this thread! I don’t think I could watch my words being twisted that way and trust others to work it out for themselves. I have a long way to go, but this is a great example of practicing what you (sorry!) preach.

    Comment: jUUlia – 18. November 2009 @ 8:27 am

  10. 🙂

    Comment: Dale – 18. November 2009 @ 8:53 am

  11. Boy is this ever timely for me. I recently forced myself to go on a Facebook “fast” after getting my fingers into one too many arguments involving religion, politics and whatnot. I only took a week away but it was a really refreshing experience. I actually deactivated my account for that time and it was amazing how when I realized I COULDN’T log in and see what people were saying, I didn’t feel compelled to do it… much less stir up stuff with my own writing.

    I’m back on now and it’s still a daily exercise to not engage people on stuff I disagree with. And boy, walking away with a pocketfull of thoughtful comebacks IS a trying thing.

    That study that Tim Mills posted seems so applicable to me too. I really DO seem to gravitate towards things that will raise my aggravation rather than improving my mood. And I’m 30! Perhaps it’s time to start giving certain things up and just enjoying life. Maybe there’s some thing to disconnecting from time to time and just watching American Idol. Their fans may be mostly stupid, but good god they’re happy people. 🙂

    Comment: FFFearlesss – 18. November 2009 @ 9:07 am

  12. @Dwayne and Juulia…Okay, my bad. That just proves how much further I have to go in this whole thing! Worth the trip, i think.

    Comment: rachel61 – 18. November 2009 @ 9:09 am

  13. Is this then how the internet will eventually regulate itself? The test being that good ideas will be responded to and really stupid ones will be left to wither on the fringe of the internet cloud. I have used the internet and its predecessor for a very long time. One thing I quickly learned was that there were enough people out there generating enough nonsense that they didn’t need me. I gave up trying to keep all these contacts and assumed a posture dedicated to those who I felt important. The list continual grows and I have purged it several times. Thank you, Dale, codifying it! There will always be pockets of interest. There will always be new people to meet. But there will never be enough time to absorb the global village.
    Just my $.02.

    Comment: qsmxpilot – 18. November 2009 @ 10:19 am

  14. @jUUlia: I just had b’fast with a “goader”. Someone who I frankly try to avoid. She knows I’m a secular humanist and constantly is remarking and misrepresenting me to and in front of others. Pretty insulting stuff: Ex: She feels sorry and worried for my kids who will never learn morality b/c we don’t go to her church.

    I used to make a polite effort to correct her but usually my anger would have me bumbling and ineffective in my defense. This series, and especially this last post, has shown that not only is it liberating to walk away from some choice conversations, but the bonus is the real understanding that people who behave this way are pretty damaged. Frustration is supplanted by pity and the clarity of a bigger picture.

    Comment: amrezen – 18. November 2009 @ 1:32 pm

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