DISAGREEMENT AS PRACTICE

In GRACEFUL LIVING by Anja Hartmann1 Comment

I’m a critical person. I’m the one who always spots the one speck of dust on the otherwise immaculately stainless mirror; I’m the one who always hears the one note that is off in the otherwise brilliantly accurate aria; I’m the one who always feels the one twist of discontent in the otherwise uniformly harmonious gathering. Being of critical disposition also means that I disagree with a lot that comes my way: I doubt facts unless and until I’ve checked the sources; I question arguments unless and until I’ve understood the logic behind them; I examine views unless and until I’ve disassembled all assumptions holding them together.

For a long time, I wasn’t even aware of these preferences of mine – let alone of the fact that they often made others uncomfortable, as they felt misunderstood, judged, or even attacked.  Then, for another long time, I felt self-consciously disheartened about these dispositions – constantly worrying whether I was stepping on people’s toes, burning their noses, or pulling rugs from under their feet, inwardly being even more critical of my own criticality whenever I noticed the urge to be outwardly critical of the world around me. Then, again, for another long time, I found comfort in shrugging my shoulders, offloading the responsibility for not getting my points across to those who I disagreed with, while comfortably dwelling in the proud self-assertiveness of being in the know. Depending on the stars, on the time of the day, and on the unpredictable manifestations of my mutable moods, on many days, I still cycle back and forth between those attitudes.

At the same time, on bright sunny mornings and when my mind is at rest, I value and cherish the immense power of disagreement as a means to better understand ourselves, others, and the world around us – and thereby, ultimately, better serve our highest purposes as human beings. How so? Every disagreement – even the tiniest quibble about how to correctly squeeze a tube of toothpaste – is a display of contradictory perspectives that, by definition, cannot co-exist in the very dimension in which they collide. So, again, by pure, rigorous logic, every disagreement is an opportunity to transcend a limiting dimension towards a grander and vaster view: Outwardly, by deciding to have two co-existing tubes of toothpaste catering to different needs and wants; inwardly, by transforming our irritation at the wrongly squeezed toothpaste into patience, acceptance, and compassion for those still caught in the sufferings of habits of toothpaste-squeezing; secretly, by trying on the formerly rejected ways of toothpaste-squeezing in order to get acquainted with, taste, and finally dissolve into the equality of all appearances of toothpaste tubes. Ignoring opportunities for disagreement means ignoring opportunities for personal growth, mental complexity and flexibility, emotional maturity, and (with all due respect) enlightenment.

Given this supreme value, it is not surprising that many – and not only spiritually informed – traditions include elaborate rituals of practicing disagreement – from the methods and motions of all brands of martial arts to the refined art of scholarly debate in Tibetan Buddhism; from the ancient Greeks’ Olympic Games to medieval knights’ tournaments; from modern parliaments’ structured debates to scientists’ practices of seeking, finding, and deconstructing insights. Even the well-orchestrated ways of warfare in early modern Europe (as well as their complement, the intricacies of diplomatic relations) can be seen as a means to channel disagreement in confined and constructive (at least, as much as possible) ways. These are all practices that are rooted in the mutual understanding that contradictions will always arise, and that our daily task as human beings living together is to know how to deal with them, accepting that as long as we’re plowing through our mundane activities, we’re unlikely to ever destroy them once and for all.

Unfortunately, it seems that most (if not all) our inherited techniques of dealing with disagreements have gone out of fashion. Instead, we live in a world in which we swing back and forth, indulging, on the one hand, in all-encompassing love, warmth, and happiness where everything is coming up roses all the time and non-violence means that no-one can ever be mistaken, not even about how to squeeze a toothpaste tube. And, on the other hand, we fall into fiercely held extreme positions of good and evil, light and dark, red and blue, boon and bane where the smallest deviation from one side instantaneously turns into disappointment, aggression, and eventually hatred and violence on both sides – bloody wars, tube for tube, tooth for tooth, eye for eye.

Right now, I’m not in a position to suggest new procedures to pacify global struggles, appease divided nations, bring together communities that are falling apart or, once and for all, uproot all conflicts and confrontations, past, present, and future. However, day by day, as I’m striving to come to peace with my own tendency to criticize (rather than praise), be skeptical (rather than believe), and reject (rather than accept), I’ve slowly learned to let disagreements unfold and unravel as a productive practice for myself, useful in gradually undermining my own mind’s restrictions and limitations, and sometimes piercing right through to the heart and marrow of what holds me back from holding a vaster view.

So: For me, disagreement as practice means, firstly, accepting, respecting, and bowing to the firm conviction that those I disagree with are – in some other respect than the one we disagree on – standing on the same ground with me, speak the same language, and think the same thoughts. At the very least: Human (or: sentient) beings – like me; communicating with words, gestures, actions, or energies – like me; trying to make sense of things and searching for meaning –  like me. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no point in disagreeing. It’s futile to disagree with a stone, a pair of scissors, or a piece of paper. Then, secondly, disagreement as practice means reverentially and elegantly offering my points of disagreement. Sometimes, this means being long-winded, flowery, and outrageously polite; sometimes this means being short, crisp, and clear. In any case, disagreeing and not making this transparent in ways accessible to who I’m disagreeing with is not an option. At the same time, I pay infinite attention to ensuring that my disagreeing with what someone says, does, or thinks must never ever be misunderstood as disagreeing with who someone is (as per the first point above). I admit that I fail on walking this fine line quite often – apologies to all who ever suffer from this inability of mine.

Then, thirdly, disagreement as a practice means assuming that I might, can, and will be wrong. My facts might be outdated, my arguments can be flawed, and my views will always be limited, too. Rome might have been built in a day; all humans can be immortal; the sky is never the limit. The simple fact that I know that others might, can, and will be wrong, means that I might, can, and will be wrong, too. No one owns the truth. So, fourthly, disagreement as practice means cheering at every baby step towards the truth, every minute insight gained, and every tiny misconception removed – regardless of whose insights increase and whose obscurations vanish. Like the joy felt when, after long, dark, rainy days, clouds dissolve and blue skies and sun reappear – a joy not belonging to anyone in particular, but pervasively filling space and time. This, too, is not easy. I admit that I still often prefer seeing others’ fallacies disassembled over having my own illusions shattered to pieces. May this preference, too, be crushed, rather sooner than later.

In very practical terms, fifthly, disagreement as practice for me means asking questions, listening hard to what’s being said (and to what’s not being said), and paraphrasing what I understand as the other’s way to make sense of what doesn’t make sense to me. This also means to never move on from any apparent deadlock of positions before I can fully summarize the other’s position – with their complete approval of how I’m describing their point of view (and, ideally, vice versa). Which implies, sixthly, to beg anyone to stay in the conversation until this point of complete mutual understanding is reached. The point which, accidentally, is just as often also the point at which not only misunderstandings, but also outright contradictions dissolve into astonishment, laughter, relief, then thin air – and reemerge as renewed energies that might (or might not) morph into new misunderstandings and new contradictions. This, I confess, is hardest for me – in particular when those I disagree with seem to withdraw from the conversation I believe we still need to have, introducing a whole new level of disagreement on disagreement – with all the jazz starting all over again.

So, finally, seventhly, disagreement as practice for me means praying that my efforts bear some kind of fruit that somehow contributes to some bigger goal. Even when I fail to convey my messages, creating more misunderstandings instead of more clarity; even when I cling to my own convictions, instead of swiftly adapting to what emerges as better truths; even when I feel abandoned, lonely, and lost, faltering in my aspiration to search for the truth beyond truths. May all these failures turn into fertile soil for new disagreements to sprout, and may those who reap them be skillful and wise in transforming their harvest into food, manure, and beautiful flower arrangements. And may they continue to sow, reap, and process, until all disagreements are exhausted.

May I never disagree with the truth.
May I always disagree with what stands in its way.
May I have the humility, courage, and skills to always tell one from the other,
even when they look completely the same.

About the Author
Anja Hartmann

Anja Hartmann

Anja was born in Hamburg, educated in academia, groomed at top management consultancy McKinsey & Company, and nowadays gives advice to executives in business, NGOs, and the public sphere. She’s a long-term student of yoga and meditation, proud mother of a five-year old son, and author of the blog Bucketrides on leadership, sustainability, and all things human. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Photos by Sasin Tipchai, Thailand.

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Comments

  1. Beautifully articulated and honestly written article !
    I fully agree with the points of view presented in this article.
    Only perhaps dead, inanimate, mentally restarted persons, non-thinking persons, etc…..don’t disagree.

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