On the same November day, I attended (virtually) two classes with common themes. In the first, by the News Literacy Project, they discussed how to confront someone who believes conspiracy theories and misinformation, using the acronym PEP (patience, empathy and persistence). In the second, a training for the program Dismantling Racism From the Inside Out, we talked about patience, finding the goodness in the other and dealing with our anger as we engage with “opponents.”
The consecutive workshops on similar topics made me think about my reactions when dealing with someone whose views are different from my own. I reflected that when I disagree, especially about politics, racism or misinformation, I tend to get emotional, defensive and just plain mad. So thanks to these two events and the approach of the eight-day celebration of Chanukah, I came up with acronyms (using eight Mussar soul traits) for drinks to quench the thirst of wanting to be right, so I can prioritize relationship over reactivity. And I can commit to ongoing dialogue over futile debate.
Patience – Having the patience to listen without interrupting and judging has been the most challenging part of my Mussar journey. I have learned that patience can be an antidote to my anger. Rather than reacting to a stimulus by igniting a fuse, I can calmly light a candle, slower to burn and longer in shedding light to illuminate the discussion.
Empathy – My starting point is understanding and honoring that the other has values and beliefs different from my own. Empathy requires bearing the burden of the other and appreciating that we have had different life experiences that led us to the divergent viewpoints we have today. “Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world,” says President Barack Obama
Persistence – One conversation isn’t going to change someone’s mind, including my own. Being non-defensive and having follow-up discussions may have an impact on both my thinking and theirs. It may help us find common ground…or not. If it’s a relationship I value, I can make the decision about whether I want to pursue a point or let it go to protect the friendship.
Curiosity – I am more likely to be in a good place to practice Mussar if I enter the conversation with curiosity rather than judgment or fear. I can ask myself, “Why does he think that way?” instead of “How can he think that way?” And “What evidence supports his claim?” rather than “How can he make that ridiculous claim?”
Courage – As the oldest child in a family where there was a lot of anger, I avoided confrontation and became the peacemaker. Over a lifetime, I have learned there is a time to stay silent and a time to speak up. “We practice ometz lev (courage) whenever we leave our comfort zone, take an unpopular stand, expose our vulnerabilities, speak the truth, confront others, risk embarrassment or personal loss, or intervene on behalf of those unable to do so for themselves,” according to Rabbi Marc Margolius senior program director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, in myjewishlearning.com
Openness – If I enter a conversation with a willingness to learn rather than a need to prove my point, I can be more receptive and respectful. Openness goes both ways, requiring an ability to listen with honor to the other person as well as the bravery to be candid about my own beliefs and values.
Loving-Kindness – In a conflict situation, I aspire to see the pure soul in the other person and treat them with love and dignity rather than judgment and anger. The mantra we learned in the anti-racism class is, “I keep my goodness flowing to you,” based on the teachings of Tomer Devorah by Rabbi Moses Cordovero.
Enthusiasm – Often when I get into a political debate, I feel the physical symptoms of anger rising – shallow breathing, fast and loud speaking, and a defensive or aggressive tone of voice. When I am enthusiastic, I may also speak louder and faster. What’s different is my tone – my enthusiastic voice is more pleasant, encouraging and excited. So if I’m mindful, perhaps I can channel the anger into enthusiasm for the opportunity to express my ideals and ideas rather than voicing anger because the other person’s attitudes are different.
PEP-C and CO(L)KE: Drinks to sip each night of Chanukah as the candles on my menorah serve to illuminate the eight Mussar soul traits – patience, empathy, persistence, curiosity, courage, openness, loving-kindness and enthusiasm – to build relationships while sharing my values and beliefs.