For the past week, I have been captivated by the writing and thought of Kathy Escobar, a pastor and blogger from Denver. (Click here to go to her blog.) The first post that grabbed my attention was entitled, Third Way Practices, the third way being “an option regarded as an alternative to two extremes.” Maybe not so earth shattering a concept, but if I say “gay marriage” or “gun control,” all of the sudden many of us can find it hard to think of a third way. These involve binary choices, only.
The psychology of ideology is a fascinating subject, one that I am thoroughly and uniquely unqualified to discuss. But, since I really am talking about ideology here, I will admit that I am wading out into deeper waters than I might reasonably expect to tread for any length of time. So be it.
With that on the table, maybe its important to outline what I will not be not saying here. I will not be saying that there is a higher, more spiritually enlightened, more mature way of coexisting with those with whom we disagree. I certainly hope I will not be saying that I am standing on some elevated perch, able to see and assess the landscape of cultural and spiritual issues better that others. To be fair, I can a big, blowhard of a fool who thinks he knows more than everybody. I don’t want to be that guy. So, on to our third way discussion.
Here’s what I tend to do. I often read or hear someone espouse what I consider to be an extreme belief or belief system, and my initial reaction is to package that person in a way that I can manage them. This means labeling, assigning motives, and assessing character. I do this so that I can either refute, belittle, or dismiss that person and their beliefs. It is most decidedly not so that I can engage, dignify, or welcome them into dialogue. I have already made up my mind about them and what they think, and therefore I am absolved of acting like a human. Maybe that’s an extreme description, but I think it’s in the ballpark.
It is certainly how I feel while observing cultural “debates” via news and social media. The two issues I mentioned above, gay marriage and gun control, fit this experience perfectly. There is heated debate, there is dismissiveness exhibited from both sides, there are accusations of stupidity and immorality from both sides, there is exasperation everywhere. I do these things, too. I am, as of late, though, losing my tolerance for this kind of behavior in myself.
I have had long Facebook discussion with friends on topics ranging from scientific naturalism to food assistance to gay marriage to the fact that the Mets, even though they suck canal water, are still my favorite team. I am learning to (mostly) love these discussions, because, if I am even remotely open to them, they change me. I don’t mean that the discussions change my opinion, necessarily, but, rather, they change me. What happens when I engage, dignify, or welcome the other into dialogue, is that I get hold of a true vision of their humanity. I am talking about why they believe what they believe, and how that affects their everyday lives. Honestly, I respect them more. My tendency, though, is to disrespect and dismiss. When I do that, I distance myself from them. That’s a weird thing, because I really love people.
So, this third way thing, what is it? For me, it’s really this, that everyone doesn’t have to see it my way so that I can feel superior, or even good about myself; that I don’t have to “win” an argument so that I can gain some kind of moral or intellectual victory ; that it is really better for me (and I think society and culture in general), to find ways to walk along together with those with whom I disagree. There are exceptions.
Escobar writes about how safer people make safe conversations, which, naturally means that unsafe people, well, you get the point. There are those who seek to build bridges, even if they have a clear territory staked out. They will let you travel on their land. These are good people with whom we can walk the third way. Then, there are those who sit at the end of their territorial driveways, ready for a fight, building a rebuttal even before you speak. It’s okay that they’re like that, meaning, they can choose however they see fit to live and interact in society. I just don’t choose to interact with them.
What I have learned, however, is that walking the third way can produce options and solutions that could never arise out of binary, black and white, either/or, two choice only discourse. And, when there simply can’t be new options and solutions, at least there can be welcome, mutuality, love, and respect. Even if we only had more of those traits in our public and private discourse, we would be better off, I think. Look at me, I am moralizing, so I will bring it home. I begin to become a better man when I listen more than I speak, when I think before I react, and when I value people more than opinions. When I really do these things, I find that my immediate society and culture (my relationships and community) are much more life giving, much more helpful to me and others, and, quite honestly, much more enjoyable to take part in.
Who’s up for a third way?