Nothing Is Taboo

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My family loves a good rousing discussion in which everyone is free to voice his or her beliefs without insults or ridicule. Our only rule is that any comments be supported with sound examples and facts. It’s okay if voices become a bit loud or people take sides. When all is said and done we leave one another with as much love and admiration in our hearts as we had before the debates began. It’s always been that way and I enjoy it more than I will ever be able to describe. It keeps us all, including the children, open minded and delivers the message that free thinking is not just allowed, but actually encouraged. 

I remember an occasion when the subject of evolution made the rounds in our family debates. One of my brothers who is a mathematician, scientist and engineer by education and profession outlined the reasons that he believed that evolution was a sound theory. My other brother chose to take the con side of this perennial argument. His was a more religious based approach and he carefully defined why evolution was a theory rather than a totally provable reality. The two were going at it so forcefully that the rest of us just sat back and enjoyed the show as if we were part of some interesting kind of live entertainment. 

Suddenly one of my brothers announced that he needed to take a break to answer a call of nature and get a glass of water to soothe his raspy voice. When he came back refreshed he began to make his arguments once again, only he had switched sides without even hinting that he was going to do so. The other brother picked up the pace without hesitation and began to advocate for the side that he had previously been refuting. We were both delighted and amazed at how fluidly they had managed to change sides seemingly without any kind of previous agreement. The grins on their faces were evidence of how the art of debating was more important to them than being tied to a strict point of view. 

This is how I grew up. I learned from an early age that we humans hold a vast variety of opinions and that it is not only okay, but important to consider the differing ideas without anger or insult. I suppose that all of us might have been excellent lawyers able to represent either the prosecution or the defense. We played the mental game of discussion and critical thinking from the time we were young even as we knew that our beliefs were often divergent. We did not measure each other according to whether or not we agreed, but in the artistry of persuasiveness.

I know that people who happen upon our family gatherings often leave thinking that we are all a bit over the top. The topics we discuss and the ensuing back and forth can be loud and sometimes even sound angry. It never bothers us because a lifetime of hosting intellectual salons has shown us that nothing is personal. It’s all about pushing the envelope of thought.

My mother encouraged us to be individuals and we are. I still attend the Catholic Church based on my childhood religious upbringing. One of my brothers has opted for the Baptist Church. The other brother is agnostic and hasn’t seen to inside of a church for anything other than weddings and funerals in decades. The same is true of our politics. We run the continuum of far right, moderate and far left political leanings. We joke with each other about how different we are and sometimes wonder how we became so, but ultimately it does not matter that we will probably never completely agree on anything other than how important our family relationships are. 

Our children and grandchildren cut their teeth on the family debates and they love them. They often mention how polite and boring gatherings are at other places. They joke that a test of whether or not they have selected the right life partner lies in their ability to witness the rowdy discussions and still agree to come back. Some of those who come late to the family just sit back in awe and others jump into the fray with abandon. Ironically it is often the quietest person in the room who ultimately wins the day with his or her thoughts.

I have always loved the stories of intellectuals gathering in Paris sharing ideas and innovative theories. I am charmed by the communications between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who had once been political enemies but ultimately became friends who corresponded until the ends of their lives which occurred on the same day. I think of Socrates challenging his students and enjoying those who were capable of challenging him back. Lively debate without unkindness is the backbone of compromise and good decision making. We learn simply from listening and suspending judgement for a moment. 

I love that no subject or idea is taboo in my family. We challenge each other to consider alternate possibilities. We are open to new ways of doing things and determined to provide every member of our group with the freedom to ultimately make their own decisions. Our mother encouraged us to be this way and it has kept us interesting. 

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