Earlier this summer, I had a run-in with one of our neighbors. He inquired about a matter that he saw as an affront to his property rights. (It was. My wife had an agreement with his wife, but…well, it’s a long story.) I asked him a clarifying question, but my tone of voice was all wrong, and in hindsight I can see why he heard it as he did. Things escalated quickly. Expletives were used. I quickly walked away.
In my mind, however, I took one more step.
Incidents like this completely unglue me, and I usually react by writing the person off. This was no exception. I did everything I could not to cross the property line anymore. I didn’t even allow myself to look in their yard (except furtively, on occasion). In essence, I sealed this fellow off from my consciousness.
I started revisiting this run-in during our conversation about last week’s post. Several of you wrote about people who had approached you not just with adamant opinions, but with hostility and vitriolic words. You talked about keeping silence and just walking away.
This type of situation comes up a lot in discussions I’ve had about dialogue. People use it to point out the limits of dialogue, and I agree. In the short term, clamming up and walking away is the best part of wisdom. Our intensity is so strongly engaged that we probably will not present our views in the best or most dialogic light. We may well end up saying things we don’t mean. And even if we could explain ourselves calmly, our adversaries are not at all inclined to hear us.
But that’s not all I did. By writing off my neighbor, I excluded him from playing any role whatever in my life. I also eliminated the possibility of enjoying a peaceful neighborly relationship with him. The best I could hope for was a tense standoff, an uneasy (if permanent) truce.
I’m not the only one who does this. Look at our public square: not only do we argue with the “other side,” we dismiss the notion that they could have anything valuable to say to us. In the process, we dismiss them as people. We lose out on the wisdom that they carry within themselves, and we miss the opportunity for a peaceful—and who knows? maybe even fruitful—relationship.
Several weeks after our run-in, a house caught fire on our block, and neighbors gathered. My wife found herself standing right next to my adversary and his wife. They fell to chatting, and lo and behold, she discovered that he’s actually a good guy. But I, with my stance toward him, would never have found out.
Sometimes, particularly when our safety is at stake, we have no choice but to write someone off. In our culture at large, however, we err on the side of doing so too quickly. What might happen if we held open the channel between us and our adversaries a bit longer?