by Marshall Scott
Not long ago I was responding to a news item on The Lead, and made this observation:
So, I find myself with this reflection, applicable on all sides: just because my argument has not been found compelling, it does not mean my argument has not been heard. I often find that hard to remember myself, since I am quite secure that my values are shared (or should be) and that my statements are rational, relevant, and cogent. That doesn’t change, though, the central reflection: my argument may have been heard and still not have been found convincing.
Not long after, one of our Editors, the estimable Ann Fontaine, asked whether I would be interested in writing a reflection on that for Daily Episcopalian. I was, and I am.
Only, that was when I ran into a writer’s dilemma: just how does one go about writing about it? More to the point, how would I go about illustrating the point?
I could, I had thought, take an issue and highlight how personal conviction might interfere with listening one the one hand, and with accepting rejection on the other. At that point, the problem wasn’t that there were too few issues to highlight. The problem, or at least the beginning of it, was that there were too many. And, of course, for any issue that I might choose to use as illustration I would most assuredly have response from someone for whom that issue was entirely too important personally for any reflective distance, for any willingness to hear the other side.
And, when we think of that which might be too important personally, we have to ask why. Before we fall into that as an individual exploration, we might acknowledge other dynamics. One that I have found interesting came up on NPR a while ago. Last October I heard this story from Shankar Vedantam, a correspondent on NPR’s Morning Edition. He writes about social science research, and in this report he was focusing on the topic of “loss aversion.” Loss aversion is about how we make decisions. More specifically, “what the theory of loss aversion will predict is that you will fight harder and longer when you’re confronting a loss.” In the story he quotes several scholars and cites their research. They illustrate this with examples both from gambling and from political decisions. The research and the examples lead him to this observation:
And I think part of the problem is that the voters are suffering from loss aversion too. So everyone is in the same psychological basket, so to say. You know, so the fundamental idea with loss aversion is that you’re driving by looking in the rearview mirror. That’s what loss aversion is. It’s not a good idea when you’re driving. It’s not a good idea when you’re gambling, and it’s certainly not a good idea when it comes to national policy.
And it’s specifically not a good idea because an individual will fight harder to avoid loss than to pursue identifiable gain, or even, in the gambling examples, basic security. After all, isn’t this why we say that an argument based on “sunk cost” is fallacious: that simply seeking to avoid loss – to make the sunk cost meaningful or worthwhile – is likely to end up increasing the loss rather than recovering it?
Now, I’m not one to say that behavior is destiny, whether we identify it as social or as psychological. On the other hand, if this is demonstrable, surely it is one of the dynamics in our difficulty listening to one another. Moreover, and as I often say in premarital counseling, even if behavior is not destiny, it is the behaviors that we don’t pay attention to that come back to bite us.
Think about the prism this gives us for so many of our current controversies. In almost every case I can think of, the greatest noise in the argument comes from those on either pole who are anxious that something has been or will be lost. The right to bear arms vs. the right to a safer society; whether and how we should engage again in the wars in the Middle East; “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” (in which even our language highlights the focus on what is lost); arguments about “tradition” vs. “progress” in the church and out – all of these seem all too often to hang up on what has been or will be lost, even if that isn’t all that is talked about.
I have no doubt, too, that the rampant individualism that characterizes our society contributes to this. After all, how much more desperate is my position, my loss, if I have only myself either to rely on or to look out for?
So, what shall we say to these things? We could reflect on this as a matter of hope. After all, one might look at loss and say that one takes on the additional risk, the additional struggle, because one “hopes” for success. Unfortunately, both in the research and in my experience it seems in fact the opposite of hope. We take on the additional risk not out of hope but out of despair; and the deeper the loss that comes of the additional risk, the more desperate we seem to become. “Hope” seems hardly to be the appropriate category, even for a faith community that speaks of being a people of hope.
I think the more appropriate category is humility. To rehearse what we have all heard before: humility is not about simple self-deprecation, much less about despising self. It is certainly not about the great pride expressed in being “wormier than thou.” It is, rather, about seeing clearly; and not only about seeing ourselves clearly, but also seeing clearly the world about us. It involves actually looking at an issue, at a situation, and at ourselves in it. It involves especially looking, not in the rear view mirror, but all around – to the front and to all sides. It involves acknowledging our own limitations, certainly, as well as our strengths; and acknowledging the strengths of those with whom we disagree, as well as their limitations. It involves seeing not only the costs of our experiences and our struggles, but also the possibilities. It involves looking at all these critically, but not cynically; judiciously, but not judgmentally. Most of all, it involves recognizing that in these issues we are not individuals alone; for not only are there communities to which we can look, but God is with us always.
And at that point we can become people of hope. We can hope that both we and those with whom we disagree, can see more clearly and can see possibilities that we haven’t yet seen. We can hope to find values we share, instead of hanging up solely on conflicts where we disagree. We can hope to see how God is working in those with whom we disagree, even as we hope to know that God is working in us – to trust that God is working, as always, for the good of those who love God, even when – especially when – our arguments, when heard, are not compelling.
Or, perhaps there are other words to the same point that might sound more familiar: “seek first the kingdom….” To seek the reign, the citizenship, the community of God, requires first and foremost that we be looking for it. It requires that we clear our sight, and that we look not only back, but forward and all around, to seen not only what God has done, but also what God is doing and might do yet. We’re entering into a series of Sundays when the Gospel lessons from Matthew will be describing in one way and another the Kingdom. We know already that the Kingdom is costly. We have formed our community out of the experience of what it cost God in Christ. At the same time, we believe that the Kingdom is in some sense at hand, and in some sense still to come. What might it mean if in all things, and especially in our worst controversies, we could look all around again and seek the Kingdom, trusting that God is working and will work? What might it mean, and what might it take, for us to seek first the Kingdom, even when – especially when – we fear we are not heard; or, just as likely, when we are heard, and not found compelling?
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.