The Art of Discourse

Quotation marks

I’m going to let my age show a bit like a tacky slip hanging out from under a skirt. My commentary has to do with how people sometimes react fearfully to the idea of being with their relatives on holidays. I was listening to an NPR interview and callers were complaining about relations who annoy them. They actually spoke of dreading gatherings and even wishing that they did not have to attend them. Most of their comments focused on discussions and comments with which they do not agree that invariably seem to come from certain family members whenever they re gathered together. The respondents made it clear that they don’t want to hear anything that is contrary to their own thoughts. They expressed strong feelings of wanting to leave when such discussions occur.

I actually found their ideas to be a bit strange, mostly because my interactions with my own extended family when I was young were laden with loud pronouncements, many of which lacked any form of finesse. The truth is that I loved witnessing such familial debates. They taught me several things. One was that there are a number of ways to consider a particular point of view, and the other was that two people can disagree and still love each other. None of the discussions that I observed ever resulted in one person feeling so hurt that he/she was left unable to forgive. In fact, one minute the two verbal opponents might be expressing opposite philosophies and the next they were laughing and hugging.

My father and grandfather were particularly prone to expressing points and counterpoints. Both of them were exceedingly well read so there were few emotions presented as arguments, but rather tons of facts. Their verbal sparring was fascinating to me instead of frightening regardless of which side of an argument each chose. Rather than feeling uncomfortable in the presence of such disagreements I learned the art of debate. I respected both men intensely, but I always mentally chose one as the winner over the other. I was fascinated by their intellectual prowess and mutual respect for each another, and I noticed that my grandmother always listened to their words with a look of pride on her face. She seemed to enjoy that the two most important men in her life were so knowledgeable. Like her it never occurred to me to be upset that they brought up controversial topics. I liked the freedom that such temporary disagreements implied.

I honestly don’t know why people take comments with which they are at variance so personally. I have always been able to simply shrug them off and laugh inside. I see little reason to become upset. I know every member of my family would literally do anything to assure my safety and comfort. Their love is real, and so it doesn’t matter to me how they think about things. When we get together the liberal Democrats mix right in with the ultra conservative Republicans. I listen to what each has to say and then form my own opinions. It’s something that I learned to do from the time that I was very young. I also became well schooled in how to be respectful even when I heard something that seemed outrageous.

My Uncle Paul often made shocking statements. I had to catch myself to keep from rolling my eyes when he spoke, but I also knew that when all was said and done he was one of the most generous and forgiving people in my world. He would complain about so called worthless people in almost vile language, and then provide the family of a homeless drug addled young man with a place to live, a job, and food. When my mother first showed signs of mental illness he quietly paid her bills, insisting that there be no fanfare for his largesse. He did not want her or anyone else to learn of his good deed. I learned from him that judging a book by its cover is often tempting, but not always accurate.

To this day my family’s get togethers are laden with vigorous discussions of all sorts of topics. Sometimes the younger folk don’t quite understand that it is all just good sport. My favorite occasion was when my two brothers were arguing over evolution. At one point there was a brief interruption of their discussion. When they finally came back to the topic they had seamlessly changed sides, something not everyone even noticed. It made me giggle to realize that they were just having a good time practicing the art of discourse.

Of course at any family gathering there may be the older relation who has primitive points of view regarding any number of ideas. While they may be annoying, I have always approached them with a sense of understanding. I know that they grew up in a different era and that it is no doubt way too late to change the way they view the world. My mannerly ways tell me to just listen and smile. I know that they don’t intend to hurt me and they are not threatening me in any way, so why should I grow angry?

Of course I am not talking about someone who is either emotionally or physically abusive. I don’t think they should be invited to family occasions at all unless they learn to curb their violent tendencies. Nobody should have to submit to anger or insults. That is a different issue altogether, but if it’s just someone voicing an opinion on the latest news I see no harm.

We live in a world in which we get way too hot under the collar whenever someone expresses sentiments with which we do not agree. It’s much easier and in keeping with a spirit of love to just allow the commentary and then walk away unscathed. There is also the possibility that we may actually learn something new if we just listen rather than immediately preparing a refutation. I personally think it is great fun to find out what people think about various situations. As a student of human nature I am never disappointed by the great variety of ideas.

Perhaps the biggest problem that we face in our country today is a stubborn unwillingness to hear each other’s ideas. Maybe a good place to practice being more responsive is to do so in the safe environment with family members who will love us no matter how crazy they may think our notions are. So keep an open mind if someone decides to bring up politics or religion or any of those highly charged topics that seem to drive people away more often than not. If we can’t be honest with family, where can we be? It’s time to enjoy those discussions for the value that they provide us rather than viewing them as triggers for negative thoughts. My father and grandfather had the right idea when they turned their differing beliefs into intellectual exercises. We all learned from those moments and always walked away better for having witnessed them.

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