Curiosity and the Third Story
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
March 12, 2017
By Rev. Christine Robinson
“Our tolerance of diversity is not just the sort that “suffers fools gladly,” you see, it is the sort of tolerance which believes that truth emerges best when people share their different versions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Our argument for pluralism comes from our theological modesty; that we know enough of truth to inform our own lives and give them meaning but not so much that we would claim it for others, much less force it upon them. This modesty is not personal passiveness but instead a true theology which suggests the largeness of the divine and the impossibility of anyone knowing everything for all time.”
By Annie Mascelli
Curiosity means that instead of snapping at someone because I’m angry, I sit with the feeling and energy of anger in my body and notice it. I notice my thoughts, the angry tirade running through my head or the desire to run and hide from the uncomfortable feelings. I just witness, without judgment, and see what I can learn about myself. I feel my feelings in my body. I gently inquire. I’m curious. Maybe I ask a few questions: What’s happening here? What am I supposed to learn right now? How am I being triggered and what old thing is coming up now? If I waited, what would happen? What would my deepest wisdom advise here? What is the most loving response I could have now?
“How does it feel, emotionally, to be wrong?”
The presenter asks that question of her audience and gets the kind of responses you might expect. Thumbs down, dreadful, embarrassing.
“Those are great answers,” Kathleen Schulz responds in her 2011 TED talk, “but they are answers to a different question. You guys are answering the question: How does it feel to realize you’re wrong?”
“Realizing you’re wrong can feel like all of that and a lot of other things,” she says, “It can be devastating, it can be revelatory, it can even be funny. […] But just being wrong doesn’t [actually] feel like anything.”
Schulz goes on to illustrate her point with a striking image from the Looney Tunes roadrunner cartoon – maybe you remember the scenes – because they seemed to happen over and over. The roadrunner, hotly pursued by that mangy lookin’ coyote, zooms off a cliff. The coyote, in that never ending mad dash chase, runs right off after him. Roadrunner is fine: as a bird, it can fly. But the striking part is that the coyote is fine too, or thinks he is. “He just keeps running —right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he’s in mid-air. That’s when he falls.”
Schulz’s point is that when we’re wrong about something — not when we realize it, but before that — we’re like that coyote after he’s gone off the cliff and before he looks down. We’re already wrong, we’re already in trouble, but we feel like we’re on solid ground. So, Schulz notes, “I should actually correct something I said a moment ago. It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.”
And, feeling right can feel pretty good. Pretty solid. Pretty Grounded. Pretty confident. But it does leave you with the problem that I noted in the service description for today. “When you feel your beliefs perfectly reflect reality, how do you make sense of all the people who don’t agree with you?”
Or the one person who doesn’t agree with you, in the case of your spouse or partner or child or coworker.
Turns out, we human beings have some pretty consistent ways of making sense of the existence of opinions that are different from our own.
“The first thing we do,” Schulz says, “is that we just assume they are ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption,which is that they’re… [just not very smart]. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are [simply incapable of] putting them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.”
“So… this is a catastrophe,” Schulz concludes.
This is a catastrophe, I concur. This is a catastrophe whether the topic we disagree on is big or small, personal or public – whether it has to do with building permits for downtown highrises, religious days off at our childrens’ schools, what needs to be cut from the family budget to pay the mortgage, whether we should or should not immunize our kids or anything to do with politics…
There are so many topics for which our human capacity for believing we’re right turns out to be large, tenacious and, not always fully based on reality.
And our human capacity to, then, believe the other guy is not only wrong, but, also, ignorant, foolish, or malicious… our capacity for negative assumptions about those who aren’t on our side also seems to be, well, significant.
And what a catastrophe in wasted energy, resources, grief, and time, as we get embroiled in conflicts that become intractable because we think we know, we think they’re bad, and we all get stuck.
Curiosity, or rather the lack of it, is all over this one.
Curiosity about where own convictions and the convictions of others come from. Curiosity about what’s going on inside of us when we disagree with someone. Curiosity about what’s going on inside of them. Curiosity about how it can be that when two people disagree with each other, and share their opposing facts with each other, they often just end up even more entrenched in their own opposing viewpoints.
Part of what’s interesting about this phenomenon to me, is that we’re all susceptible to it. Adult, child, boss, employee, left wing, right wing, libertarian, it doesn’t matter… We’re all susceptible to having beliefs and holding on to them, to focusing on a few things and building a solid story out of them, we’re all susceptible to that warm feeling of security we get when we focus just on the facts that confirm what we already think.
Unfortunately that confident feeling doesn’t necessarily improve understanding, cooperation, or lead to progress with people who see things differently. And it’s not even always well-founded – we forget that we are all, from time to time, that coyote who’s run off the cliff without ground to stand on, though we cannot, always, tell.
But before we can get from conviction to curiosity, from opposition to solution, we have to open ourselves to that groundless, falling, feeling that maybe (just maybe) we’re not completely right. Maybe things aren’t as simple as we thought. Maybe, there’s room, maybe, there’s a need, for curiosity.
Because, outside of truly black and white issues like whether it did or did not snow in East Greenwich on Friday, or whether you did or did not receive a phone call from your son yesterday, there’s complexity and nuance to every issue we get tangled up over. It’s not usually the facts themselves we disagree on, but their interpretation and their relative importance. And, as authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen assert in their book Difficult Conversations, “[the interpretation and the relative importance of facts is] not absolute and a lot harder to pin down [than the facts themselves]. More often than not there is a way in which both parties are right, at least to some extent. And, often, being “right” is not [even] the point.”
They give as an example: “the conversation you have with your daughter about her smoking. You know you are right that smoking is bad for her, that the sooner she stops the better. Fair enough. About each of those things, you are right. But here’s the rub: that’s not what the conversation is really about. It’s about how you each feel about your daughter’s smoking, what she should do about it, and what role you should play. It’s about the terrible fear and sadness you feel as you imagine her becoming sick, and your rage at feeling powerless to make her stop. It’s about her need to feel independent, to break out of the “good girl” mold that feels so suffocating. It’s about her own ambivalence doing something that makes her feel good and at the same time truly frightens her. The conversation is about many issues between the two of you that are complex and important to explore. It is not about the truth of whether smoking is bad for one’s health. Both of you already agree on that.
“Or, maybe your friend is an alcoholic, but your friend denies it and denies that his drinking is affecting his marriage. The fact is, even if the whole world agrees with your assessment, asserting that you are right and trying to get him to admit it probably won’t help you help your friend. What may help is to tell him about the impact his drinking has on you, and, further, to try to understand his story. What is keeping him in denial? What would it mean to him to admit he has a problem ? What gets in the way? Until you understand his story, and share yours with him, you can’t help him find a way to rewrite the next chapter for the better.”
And that, rewriting that next chapter, is ultimately what we want to be able to do. We can’t change the past, but we can begin to rewrite what comes next, and we have to do it together.
“Truth emerges best when people share their different versions of a story in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” we heard, in our first reading.
And: Curiosity means that instead of snapping at someone because I’m angry, I sit with the feeling and energy of anger in my body and notice it – Notice the desire to run from the uncomfortable feelings.” That’s from our second reading.
Respect. Curiosity. … Uncomfortable feelings.
Characteristics of just about every significant, forward-moving conversation I’ve ever had. Respect for the other person, curiosity toward them and their story, curiosity toward ourselves. And uncomfortable feelings to move through. Whether that’s anger, or fear, or uneasiness or something else…. Sometimes, significantly uncomfortable feelings.
No one ever said building bridges with people who disagree with us was easy.
But the hopeful thing is that it’s possible. Very possible. Even an opportunity, for us, not only to try to shift something with another person, but also to learn about, or even shift something, in ourselves.
Even just our attempts at being more open can begin to change things.
And life, you will notice, provides many opportunities to practice…
But it does require 3 things. Letting go of our need to be right. Letting go of our desire to make the other person wrong, and being willing, to face, uncomfortable feelings. A hero’s journey.
The difficult conversations book offers useful insights as well as useful tips on the “how,” of these kinds of bridge building interactions. And while I can’t summarize it all here, I do want to highlight one core concept from the book, which is this idea of the “third story,” the story that is both mine and theirs. A bigger perspective that is respectful towards my feelings and my view, as well as their feelings and their view. It’s how a mediator or a therapist might describe a situation, a neutral, all-encompassing picture, and when we can find the third story between us and someone who disagrees with us, we have an opening for a genuine, positive, forward-moving conversation.
The authors of the book offer a reassurance: “Stepping out of your story doesn’t mean giving up your point of view. Your purpose […] is to invite the other person into a joint exploration. In the course of that exploration you’ll spend time in each side’s perspective, and then come back to adjust your own views based on what you’ve learned and what you’ve shared.”
When I mentioned the focus of this sermon to someone the other day they said – yes, the third story – the one that Jesus told, the one MLK told, or Nelson Mandela. People, I reflected afterwards, who could see the big picture, who had integrity, who were not only bold, and justice-oriented, but worked for a message that would ultimately free everyone, friend, “enemy,” oppressed and oppressor. Who pointed the way toward a truth based in love – not a happy go lucky, la di da love, but a fierce, engaged and engaging love. A love that would challenge, uncover, release and begin to dissolve whatever is based in confusion, anger, fear or hate. A love that dissolves these things not just because they are wrong but because we all begin to see how they block us off from each other, because we begin to see what an incredible blessing we miss when we are blocked. I so appreciate what MLK said in one of his sermons. I quoted it back in January and it was something like this: I don’t want to just win our rights, he said. I want to win you.
But when we lead with curiosity, when we look for the third story and offer that, when we look for where they might be right and we might be wrong as well as the other way around, we have a chance to win each other.
And as we do, aligning again and again with the call of our common, core, human values, like respect for other people, compassion, respect for our earth, and respect for our individual but connected search for meaning then, rather than being locked in opposition, we can begin, more and more, to move forward, with an ever-wider range of people, writing the new chapter of our common future.
May it be so.
Hymn: Love Knocks and Waits for Us to Hear
1. Love knocks and waits for us to hear, to open and invite; Love longs to quiet every fear, and seeks to set things right.
2. Love offers life, in spite of foes who threaten and condemn; embracing enemies, Love goes the second mile with them.
3. Love comes to heal the broken heart, to ease the troubled mind; without a word Love bids us start to ask and seek and find.
4. Love knocks and enters at the sound of welcome from within; Love sings and dances all around, and feels new life begin.