informal essays

Love Disarms

Love… believes all things.

I am ever fascinated at the way the modern secular institution stumbles upon ancient sacred virtues and proceeds to dutifully dissect them. Last month The Atlantic published a wonderful piece about psychology’s attempts to understand successful marriages and conclusions about the remarkable importance of kindness and generosity. The piece primarily focuses on John and Julie Gottman’s research, which includes some great practical analysis about responding to “bids”:

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example… the husband… might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” …hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird. The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband… These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being…

Interesting, yes. But I think the greatest insight in the piece has to do with what one assumes about the intentions of the other person.

One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions…

Our family’s methodical journey through the New Testament took us past the famous thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians a few weeks ago. Assuming the best about someone – giving the benefit of the doubt when possible – can go a long way toward improving relationships. I wonder if that’s what Paul meant when he said “Love… believes all things.”

Despite hearing it thousands of times I’ve never really thought about what that section meant. Love endures all things, bears all things – those always seemed straightforward to me. Even hopes all things does not require too much imagination. But I always lumped believes all things with them and never really gave it much thought. Clearly it does not mean one believes all possible facts, including assertions that contradict each other. But in the context of relationships, could it mean that one believes the best about someone else? (Some commentaries seem to think so.)

I’ve mainly been thinking about this not so much in the context of marital relationships but in the context of debate and dialogue between people with sharp disagreements. Last year at Audiofeed Festival, I was very attracted to Preston Sprinkle’s humble attitude about the fairly controversial topics he was exploring (hell, non-violence). There are a lot of people, even within Christian circles, who are extremely confident that their particular theological and political views are completely right and everyone else’s are completely wrong – which often ends up turning me off to both sides of a complex issue. Conversely, I find that having humility – admitting that you don’t have everything completely figured out and may be wrong about some things – actually increases my interest in listening to your argument about why you do think the way you do, and makes you more likely to convince me of your position.

But of course, that’s not true for everyone. People who only know a little about a complex topic may have an oversimplified view but express absolute confidence that they are right, while people who know more about the complexities tend to express less confidence about their position. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. A lot of people want simple answers to complicated issues and tend to gravitate towards people who express the most confidence about the position – especially confidence that reinforces what they already want to believe – even though the people with the most confidence actually know the least about it. Thus you end up with people on opposite sides of an issue who are each completely convinced that their position is obviously right, which makes it easy to demonize anyone who opposes such an obvious position as evil idiots who are hardly worth acknowledging.

So humility about your own position is sometimes but not always enough to initiate constructive dialogue. But with the power of “love believes all things,” I think I may have another part of the puzzle: believing the best about your opponent’s intentions.

When an opponent assumes I must be an evil idiot to believe the things I do, but I’m pretty sure I’m not, it immediately puts me in a defensive position. I’m not really open to hearing your arguments, because if they lead you to conclude something about me that I know to be false then I know there’s something wrong with them – or with you – and I’m only looking to poke holes in your argument or return the personal attack in an escalating warfare of utter nonsense.

By contrast, if you validate my position by showing that you understand how a reasonable human being could think those things, then you’ve disarmed me. I’m much more likely to listen to you then explain why you disagree with my position.

Shane Claiborne is really good at this, and I think it’s part of why he’s such an effective speaker and writer. Others who hold similar views rail against the rich as terrible, depraved monsters bent on destroying the world for their own sadistic pleasure, but Shane sees himself in them and pities their loneliness. Propaganda is really good at this, too, and that’s why in a couple short songs and interviews he’s taught me more about race than dozens of angry political blog posts and editorials that have crossed my path over the years.

Even though I could still point out plenty of areas I disagree with both the positions and the approaches of either Shane or Prop, they both use a potent combination of humility about their own position and understanding about their opponent’s position that completely disarms me, helps me understanding their positions better, shifts me closer to them than I might otherwise have expected, and leaves me interested in listening and learning more.

Certainly there are those incorrigible souls who cannot be reasoned with, and who may be best left alone. But I believe their numbers must be much smaller than we might like to believe – that the vast majority of people we know, however wrong or misguided or in need of correction they may be, are still reasonable folks with the best of intentions. In fact, I think Paul insists we believe that. Besides, if we don’t, it’s going to be much harder to correct them, anyway – and we might be the ones needing correction more often than we want to admit. I think humility about one’s shortcomings and being charitable about someone else’s can powerfully invigorate constructive dialogue and heal broken relationships. Then again, I could be wrong. But I think it’s worth a try.