The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. Brent is interning with us at The Marin Foundation this summer, and you can find his blog at oddmanout.net.
How effective is it when someone tells you not to feel the way you feel?
Let’s take some easy examples: When someone prefaces a statement with a hesitant request, “Don’t be mad, but…” does it effectively prevent you from feeling angry at what follows? When someone finishes a self-deprecating story with an exasperated plea, “Don’t laugh!” does it wipe the smile from your face? Or let’s take some heavier examples: When you’re in a situation that feels unsafe or unsettling and a friend insists, “Don’t be scared,” does your fear immediately dissipate? When your roommate does something that troubles you and urges, “Just be glad for me!” does it fill you with the warmth of happiness? These commands rarely (if ever) work on me, and in many cases, they exacerbate what I actually do feel.
Disagreements about homosexuality and same-sex marriage tend to become passionate and emotional, and I think that’s good. We’re debating something that’ simultaneously intensely personal (whom I love, what rights I deserve, whom I sleep with) and inescapably universal (what constitutes a “family,” what we define as “healthy sexuality,” what our government should provide or deny), and as a result, our debates are never merely intellectual exercises. They’re deeply urgent and close with stakes that couldn’t be higher, and as a result, our emotions flare up in precisely the way I think God designed them to flare up. It’s probably a good thing we feel furious and dejected and exhilarated and tender when we talk about same-sex marriage, since that means we’re grasping in our guts what a big deal this is. Feeling emotions is great; acknowledging and naming and unpacking emotions is even better.
So you’re certainly not going to hear me say our debates about same-sex marriage need to be less emotional. What I do want to say is that, if our goal is constructive dialogue, we need to avoid the temptation to dismiss the feelings of others when we’re of the opinion that they shouldn’t feel the way they do. In many cases, we’re fairly good at recognizing the way other people—even our enemies—feel; unfortunately, in many cases, we’re also fairly good at disregarding those feelings as soon as we can describe the reasons they ought to feel otherwise. And when we focus on the reasons people shouldn’t feel a certain way instead of focusing on the way they actually feel, we start to underestimate the power those feelings hold over the other person’s attitude. “Their fear is completely unjustified,” we say, and so we disregard the extraordinary power fear wields in a person’s decisions. “Their anger is based on faulty thinking,” we say, and so we ignore the way anger inextricably influences behavior. We may even have doubts about whether they actually feel a certain way, as if they’re merely using emotional language to hide their motives and boost their position: “There’s no way they could actually be afraid of that.” At this point, it becomes nearly impossible for us to take what the other person says seriously or to engage them in constructive dialogue. Even if we’re actually right and they’re completely wrong and they really truly shouldn’t feel that way, we’ve moved no closer to understanding or agreement, and we may have even intensified their feelings and their zeal for their position.
When a same-sex couple feels deep sadness and anger about the rights and privileges they don’t receive from the government in spite of their commitment to one another, there’s really nothing to be gained from a conservative Christian telling them, “You shouldn’t feel that way”—even if the Christian believes their relationship is fundamentally sinful and thinks there’s a good reason why the government should reserve those rights and privileges for opposite-sex couples. The couple’s deep sadness and anger are real, and productive discussion can only proceed if the Christian acknowledges those feelings. And when an evangelical pastor feels deep fear about whether it will be possible and feasible for his church to continue refusing to perform same-sex marriages in the midst of a culture that sees no legal difference between heterosexual and homosexual marriages, there’s really nothing to be gained from a marriage equality advocate telling him, “You’re not actually afraid of that”—even if the advocate believes the pastor’s theology is outdated, maybe antiquated, and thinks the pastor’s fears are ill-founded in light of protections for religious liberty. The pastor’s deep fear is real, and productive discussion can only proceed if the advocate acknowledges those feelings.
I’ll pause a bit on that word “acknowledges.” I think there’s a strong concern on both sides of the debate that acknowledging the way an opponent feels somehow legitimizes the other person’s position. If the advocate recognizes the pastor’s fear, doesn’t that somehow cede ground to the pastor’s reasons for feeling afraid? If the Christian genuinely listens to the couple’s sadness and anger, doesn’t that somehow validate their relationship? And in either case, isn’t that the very last thing the person on one side of a debate would want to do to someone on the other side? That concern is understandable (Did you notice how I’m trying my best to model what I’m advocating in this post?), especially in those situations where my opponent’s position has done harm to me or is doing harm to me. Nevertheless, this isn’t really about seeing things from my opponent’s perspective, although—when that’s a safe endeavor for me—it’s often a helpful exercise. This is about recognizing that my opponent is probably feeling emotions just as intensely as I’m feeling emotions, and regardless of whether those emotions are justified, I’ll get a lot farther when I acknowledge they’re part of the game. If my opponent is afraid or sad or angry, increasing their fear or sadness or anger through aggressive arguments or deafening protests probably won’t improve the situation or invite them into a new way of thinking.
It’s useful to remember that the emotions I’m describing—fear, anger, sadness—are universal human emotions. When we can acknowledge those emotions in ourselves and in others, it reminds us of the countless ways we’re similar instead of the few ways we’re dissimilar. It reminds us we’re usually striving for the same things, even if we don’t agree on how we’ll attain them, and it suggests we might even possess the capacity to imagine an existence beyond a zero-sum game, an existence in which you getting what you want doesn’t mean me not getting what I want.
If nothing else, it reminds us we’re humans who ought to treat one another like humans, and that could go a long way in improving the conversation.
Do you find it difficult to acknowledge the emotions of people who fundamentally disagree with you? Have you ever felt like someone else was dismissing your emotions in the midst of this debate?