I was just finishing my first lawn mowing of the season, and the podcast to which I’d been listening mixed with a thought I’d had while writing my post this morning and brewed up an epiphany.
Recently, I was talking with a fellow Tiverton resident with whom I’m friendly, but with whom I have a great number of philosophical differences. At some point, she suggested that somebody among my friends is (let’s say) a little out there. My response was that I’d give her that concession if she’d admit that this other person on her side is similarly a little out there. “Oh, no,” she replied. “That person is just very passionate.”
This difference of impressions points to a serviceable definition of insanity, as being passionate about weird or disconnected things. You can see how this applies variously depending on your own views. An eccentric person “on my side” may make some odd associations and overstate things, but I understand where he or she is coming from and can fill in the blanks, even if they go a bit too far. Meanwhile, an eccentric person “on your side” is just nuts. After all, if your ideas are wrong from my perspective, lowering your level of calmness and removing a pinch of your logic would mean you’re talking plain craziness.
It wouldn’t be easy, but we can start to see a means of approaching harmony in this. If everybody prioritizes calm, reasoned dialogue based on an attempt to agree on objective facts, we can get along to some extent. If we zoom out our perspective a bit, then it’s no longer my side and your side, but a single united group trying to achieve a shared objective.
Of course, that raises the problem of “united versus what”? Parachute me and just about anybody from my town into the middle of North Korea, and we’ll be on the same side before we’ve disconnected from our straps.
This is where the new thought comes in. Psychologically, we interpret reality through narratives, and we derive meaning and satisfaction through progress toward some goal. Setting our goals at different tiers produces different levels of meaning. It wasn’t personally fulfilling that I produced a cup of coffee by pushing a button on my Keurig this morning. Figuring out how to fix a broken part on my lawnmower and using the machine without the annoying defects it had in the autumn was much more satisfying.
In town, I’ve been trying to get our tax rate under control for years, and this, more than anything, is the goal that those “on the other side” do not share, or at least that they do not prioritize over other things. So, they’ve set thwarting us tax hawks as their goal. Put the above ideas together, and their sense of meaning and success versus failure sets the level for their scope of perceived “community.” We’re not in North Korea, we’re in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and I’m standing against the project that would give their participation meaning. For some, defeating me is the goal that would provide meaning.
To be sure, we could back up a level and set a higher goal. If we truly believed that everybody wants our town’s children to be well educated, for example, then different approaches could be accepted. Just as we can find common cause with the eccentric people who aren’t 100% in line with us, we can accept that somebody else who wants to improve education might simply have a fundamentally different approach, and we can go about figuring out how to compromise or try different things or something.
I don’t have a solution, yet; this is just pulling together some thoughts. But one thing we could try is pretty simple: try to keep in mind that a higher level of community exists. We spend too much time laboring under the belief that disagreement on a particular political question traces back to a defect in the other person’s soul. Instead, remind yourself that — probably in fewer steps than you believe — you and that other person are actually in agreement. He or she isn’t evil or crazy… just passionately incorrect about some assumption.