We’re in trouble.
I’m not referring to the global pandemic, nor the prospect of new lockdowns in our country as the virus resumes its exponential spread, nor the school year approaching in the midst of it all, nor the cultural upheavals around race, nor the most divisive election in our country’s history which is about to happen in the long shadow of all this turmoil. Sure, this can all make one a little tense, skittish, and twitchy. However, we’re not in trouble because we have a bunch of really important problems to solve. We’re in trouble because of our inability to solve them.
We’re in trouble because the key to solving communal challenges is civil discourse, which has two prerequisites: the awareness that you might have a blind spot or two, and the humility to let someone with whom you disagree show them to you.
Recently, I was in a conversation that was going nowhere, when I asked the person I was speaking with if he might have any blind spots. He told me he did, but he was completely aware of them. It was a strange way to describe a blind spot.
We’re in trouble because humility is an endangered species in the public square.
It’s been years since I’ve engaged in dialogue on Facebook, in part because I don’t venture into social media very much anymore. It’s not good for my soul. It’s not designed to be. It’s designed to trigger my ego and all of its slightly-less-than-humble reactions. The truth is, I avoid social media debates not because I’m some paragon of humility, but because I have difficulty mustering even an ounce of humility in that space.
Recently, though, I caved.
A friend had posted an article from a reputable source, with a startling headline. However, upon closer examination, the headline was startling because the article had been published in 2017 and the information it presented was outdated. I found an updated article from the same source that painted a more accurate picture of the topic, and I shared it. Along with it, I asked this question: “Will this more accurate data change your mind?” Because that’s really the question we should all be asking ourselves before we consider engaging in civil discourse.
If the answer to the question, “What would it take to change my mind?” is, “Nothing,” then you probably aren’t engaging in civil discourse.
You’re probably not even engaging in sincere debate. You’re simply advertising your brand. You’re telling everyone who you are and who you are determined to remain. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a time and place for it. But the time and place is probably while you’re having a cup of coffee with a like-minded friend.
We’ve got important problems to solve, and we need to keep our public spaces free for actual civil discourse.
Humility needs some room to repopulate the public square. I know, humility sounds so sanctimonious. Most of the least humble people you know are the ones who are always hinting at how humble they are. So, let’s quit thinking of humility as a character trait that defines us, and let’s start thinking of it as a moment that happens to us. It’s that moment when you realize you were completely wrong about something of which you’d been completely certain.
Humility is the awareness that if you could have been so wrong about one thing, you might be just as wrong about many things.
I had a moment like that happen to me in 2008. I describe it in more detail in my forthcoming book, but suffice it to say, in the space of a morning, I saw my entire life from a new angle. I became aware of the ways I was clinging to a set of rules and beliefs and judgments that had served a very specific purpose for me: they’d given me a structure for living the early years of my life. A blueprint, if you will. I needed that blueprint. It made the hard and confusing parts of life tolerable for a while. Over time, however, that tightly-held worldview was making me intolerable. Josh Ritter sings, “How many times is the truth that you take to be true, just truth falling apart at the same speed as you?”
Humility isn’t a virtue; it’s the natural byproduct of a moment in which your truth fell apart, and so did you, and you both became a little more graceful because of it.
To be honest, though, sometimes I try to put that morning back in the box. I conveniently forget it happened, or I pretend it will never happen again. I start telling myself that I’ve arrived and I’m complete and my evolution is over. Surely, this thing I now believe is the right one. The final one. Social media has a tendency to trigger this self-delusion in me. It makes me unfit for civil discourse.
As this unprecedented year—with all of its unprecedented challenges—grinds on, may we do our part to make true civil discourse possible.
May we remember the moments in our life in which our super-sized certainty gave way, at least briefly, to the awareness that we were more than a little wrong. May we call upon that moment of humility so that it can guide as many conversations as possible. I plan to try. And when I can’t muster it, instead of advertising my brand under the guise of earnest debate, I’m going to do something else.
I’m just going to go get a cup of coffee.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.