It’s easy to look at folks on the other side of the political, cultural or societal divide and think “What’s wrong with them?!” Maybe there’s a logical and reasonable explanation.
The Hopeless Romantic
“I think you’re cute. I think you’re funny. I really like you. Will you go out with me?”
It was late-winter, 1995, and fifteen-year-old freshman Ender Bowen (known then as “Joel” or “Weanie”, depending on who you ask) had finally gotten up the courage to ask out his crush. Not on a date, (we didn’t do silly things like dates at that age), but to be his girlfriend.
Strangely, I don’t recall what song was playing, but I remember just about everything else fairly vividly. It was a Friday night school dance in the cafeteria. A slow song. The lights low. I’d asked her to dance. She’d said yes, (first hurdle down), and here we were… swaying awkwardly while “holding” each other at arm’s length. COVID distancing before that was even a thing. The classic “teenage tango”.
This was actually a good thing because – despite the fact that I desperately wanted to be closer to her, to disappear into the calming wafts of vanilla perfume she always wore – I was sweating like I’d sprinted a marathon for several hours. Felt like it, too. Perhaps, if I kept my movements minimal, I wouldn’t splish-splosh into giant puddles on the floor.
My pulse was racing. My head was swimming. My feet were like bricks. My knees were wobbly. My whole body felt both alive and on fire.
She… did not appear to have any of these problems. To a certain extent, that was disappointing. But it also made a kind of sense – she was relatively popular. I was… well… “Weanie”. I knew what I was up against.
And yet… here she was giving lil ol’ me the time of day! That had to be a good sign, right? I certainly made myself believe it was.
She had known this was coming. How could she not? I’d been wooing her with poems, letters and – I think at least once – flowers, for more than a month now.
That was – essentially – what TV, film, magazines, teen dramas and sometimes adults had taught me to do. Be the sweet, hopeless romantic. Do the work. If you do the work, you’ll get the girl.
“I think you’re cute. I think you’re funny. I really like you. Will you go out with me?”
Can you believe I actually rehearsed that?!
I remember her smiling, telling me I was really sweet (score!). She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no, either. She had to think about it.
Considering the optics, I figured this was reasonable. But – because I’d done the work – I had no doubt I was going to get the girl!
Which is why I was gutted a week later when she handed me a letter stating she wasn’t currently looking for a boyfriend – she just wanted to be friends.
Don’t panic! It’s okay! You can work with this! Show her what a good friend you can be. Hold a boom box over your head. Maybe she’ll come around.
That would have been a great strategy… had she not started dating someone else that same day. To say that I was thoroughly crushed would be an understatement. I felt utterly annihilated. Particularly because I’d done what I thought I was supposed to do.
The Politics of Dancing
Things didn’t work out the way I had expected because it had never occurred to me that no matter what I did, this girl just wasn’t interested in me. Not like that. I hadn’t been prepared for the notion that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how nice I was, no matter how well I treated her or showed her how much she was appreciated, she might still say no.
That just didn’t make sense to me. After all, everything I’d ever seen, heard, watched, or been told strengthened in me this idea that if I wanted the girl, I could get the girl. I just had to follow the proper steps. Do this, get that.
But if that wasn’t really the case – if that wasn’t really how it worked – then all that time and hard work had been based upon a lie. Or, at best, an inaccurate premise. I’d strategized, made decisions, and taken certain actions in line with this original truth that, in reality, wasn’t actually true.
Was I predisposed to believe it was true because I was a hopeless romantic? Did I latch onto this original “truth” because it confirmed the way I saw the world? Did I filter out all the warning signs because they didn’t conform to my reality?
I can’t deny that because I had a certain belief about the way the world worked, I may have sought out books, media, and people that reinforced this belief. It was only logical – reasonable, even – that I made the choices I made as a result.
That’s pretty much the definition of “confirmation bias” isn’t it?
And it’s a lot easier to see and acknowledge that, as crazy and unhinged as our “enemies” may seem, perhaps they’re not so loony after all. Perhaps they’re not really wrong.
At least, not mostly.
The Proof Is In The Mathematical Pudding
When you were in school, you probably – like me – went through a unit of math class focused on completing a sequence of related mathematical problems. The first answer in this sequence would provide you a variable that you would then use to perform the rest of the equations.
We used to colloquially refer to these as “mathematical proofs”. Or just “proofs”. Or sometimes “migraines“.
Sometimes you had to find the lengths of the sides of a triangle. Sometimes the problems were logic-based. And other times they required the memorization of God-only-knows how many nonsensical formulas (I hated those)!
They could be fun, but even then they were frustrating, because no matter what I did – no matter how hard I worked or studied or prepared – I could never get a perfect score on them.
But I almost always got really close!
That’s because even though I got nearly everything else right, it was that first variable that I consistently got wrong. As a result, my final answer would always be incorrect.
See, when you solve that first equation and get that first variable, you have to proceed as though that variable is the truth. Everything you do from here on out is now based on that “truth”. You plug that variable into the subsequent equations and proceed as if it was correct. If your logic is sound, your arithmetic pristine and your formulas perfect, you’ll get the right answer based on that first variable – on that first truth. And you’ll get points for that – just like I always did.
But if that first variable is wrong – if it isn’t the “truth” – then that final answer is also wrong.
This is almost exactly what I experienced with my crush. What I believed was true – that if I worked hard to get the girl, then I would get her – was the first variable. Everything I did after that was based off of that variable. I may have done everything “correct” but ultimately – because that variable was “false” – I was doomed to fail.
I imagine there were plenty of kids at my school who knew full well that I was doomed. And I’m sure they thought I was crazy because they didn’t see the world the same way I did. Yet, had they told me I was headed for heartbreak, would I have listened? Or would I have escaped back into the comfort of the sources that reinforced what I believed?
How many of us would do the same thing? How many of us are doing that very thing right this moment?
It’s easy to look at folks on the other side of the political, cultural or societal divide and think… how could these people behave like this? How could they do these things? Why aren’t they making any sense?
What’s wrong with them?!
Maybe… nothing. Maybe, more often than not, nothing is wrong with them. They simply see the world a different way – whether they’re predisposed or conditioned to – and base their decisions on what makes logical and reasonable sense given this view.
I mean… wouldn’t you? Don’t you?
If you truly believed that Donald Trump was a neo-fascist, racist, misogynist xenophobe that wanted to trample on the rights of minorities, women and immigrants, it’s completely logical and reasonable to see why you didn’t vote for him. Furthermore, I could understand your terror at the realization that half the country did — twice!
If you absolutely believed that the federal government was intending to enslave their own people and take away your freedoms, it’s completely logical and reasonable to see why you might buy up a bunch of weapons in order to defend yourself and your family. Furthermore, I could understand your terror at the observation that half the country wants to take those weapons away from you!
If you completely believed that God exists, that He is a force for Good, and that He Loves everyone equally and unconditionally, it’s completely logical and reasonable to see why you might work to show people of disparate beliefs, faiths, and political leanings how to understand each other through Compassion.
And if you were totally convinced that seaQuest DSV was a great show, it’s completely logical and reasonable to see why you might have recorded every single episode to VHS when it was originally broadcast.
Make no mistake, this isn’t about defending another person’s decisions and behaviors.
It’s about understanding them.
Because no matter how crazy a person may seem – friend or foe – it’s important to remember that their perspective is not necessarily the same as yours. And while the decisions they make may seem wrong to you – heck, they may even be wrong – they may actually make some sense – even to you – based not only on what they believe, but also how and why they believe it.
The good news is, if they really are thinking logically and reasonably, there may be room for honest discourse, after all.
No, you may never see eye to eye. You may never find common ground. You may never find the answers you’re looking for.
But, from the understanding and knowledge gleaned through Compassion, you may find that – right or wrong – these “crazy” people are real human beings doing the best they can with what they know.
In the spirit of math proofs, you may even come to realize that not everyone you disagree with deserves a big fat zero.
What do you think of this concept of applying a math proof to another person’s beliefs and behaviors? Do you think it might make it easier to understand them? What might you discover if you apply this concept to yourself? Could you use it to describe your own beliefs – and your behaviors as a result – to someone else? Share your thoughts and experiences below!
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