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The Art of Disagreement

What happens when we disagree?

Not if we disagree, but when. Because we will always disagree eventually. Always.

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Is that bad?

It depends who you ask!

Disagreement, or lack of consensus, is going to happen whenever two or more of us are interacting. Why, then, has it become so risky, this perfectly normal opportunity to show our work or learn another point of view? Why are we so insecure we can’t tolerate the slightest disagreement? Are our egos so fragile we can’t stand to be wrong or rethink a position? Does our fear of moral condemnation outweigh our ability to consider ideas and information (facts) clearly and critically and speak honestly about our conclusions?

When did differing opinions become a matter of hate and violence, and speaking our truth start leading to such brutal consequences?

Do we no longer understand how to agree to disagree?

Will authoritarianism ever lead to true agreement, or is the best we can hope for a sullen silence and mandated obedience?

(Don’t forget the French revolution.)

Certainly, it appears more and more people value power over truth, rigidity over resilience, and mindless agreement over genuine collaboration and teamwork.

If we must be in agreement all the time, there’s no hope of true cooperation and we each remain locked in our own narrow impoverished bubble, interacting only with those whose bubbles look exactly like ours. Except I don’t know of anyone who has exactly the same bubble as another. But then we’re experts at constructing believable facades.

Insisting on 100% agreement all the time guarantees cultural collapse. We can’t do it. We’re not made that way. It’s a social dead end for humanity. We cannot thrive or even survive without a healthy complex social system among our own kind as well as with countless other forms of life.

The friction of disagreement, of difference, is essential. It keeps us flexible and demands we exercise our learning and listening skills as well as use our imagination and empathy. Disagreement is a sign of respect and caring, both for ourselves and our point of view and experience, and for others. If we care enough to disagree openly and peacefully, we’re signaling our willingness to make an authentic commitment and contribution. We’re not sitting back accepting brainwashing passively, but actively participating and engaged, examining, exploring, and asking questions about whatever is in our attention.

At least some of us are.

Others demand an environment of complete agreement with no questions asked. Heavy social penalties occur if someone steps out of line. There is no negotiation, no cooperation, no discussion, no new information or showing of work. You will agree and obey. Or else.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Fortunately, we humans have a wide rebellious streak, some more than others. Certain people are never going to sit down and shut up. Certain people do not worship the status quo, especially if it doesn’t serve the majority. These folks disagree, and they say so. They provide information (facts) to back up their point of view. They ask inconvenient and uncomfortable questions. They shine the clear light of critical thinking on issues and ideology.

They don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

Disagreement does not need to be a call to arms. It’s not hate. It’s not disrespect or intolerance. It’s not prejudice or bigotry. It doesn’t mean we have to cut perfectly healthy relationships out of our lives. Disagreement is a chance for connection and an expanded empathy. It’s an opportunity to learn. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, and a diverse system is a healthy one.

A system in which disagreement is forbidden cannot thrive, adapt, and grow. It’s brittle and stunted, just like the scared, shriveled human beings controlling it.

Want peace? Want tolerance, justice, and respect? Learn, demonstrate, teach, and support the kind and gentle art of disagreement.

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Doing Things We Don’t Want to Do

Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.

It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.

But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.

The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:

Life is not much fun.

I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.

Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.

This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.

A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.

  • If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
  • If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
  • If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
  • If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
  • If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
  • If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.

And so on.

I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.

It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.

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Manufactured Distrust

Trust: Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary)

Mistrust: General sense of unease towards someone or something

Distrust: Specific lack of trust based on experience or reliable information

Leo Babauta recently published a piece on practicing trust which has given me much food for thought.

Trust is an uncomfortable subject for me. For most of my life I’ve considered myself to be shamefully distrustful. As I’ve learned emotional intelligence, I’ve realized I have plenty of good reasons for my mistrust and distrust, but there’s still a part of me that feels I should be more trusting, more willing to give others a second, or third, or hundredth chance, less guarded, more open, more forgiving.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Except I know intellectually forgiveness does not mean an automatic reinstatement of trust.

In my heart, I feel like a bad person, especially a bad woman, because throughout my life people who say they love me have appeared to be hurt by my lack of trust. Yet those same people have given me reasons not to trust them.

When I wind up in these confusing emotional cul-de-sacs, I blame myself. I’m being too dramatic (again). I’m being a bitch. I’m mean. I can’t love, or let anyone love me. (Does trust = love? Does all love automatically come with trust?) When I explain the specific events leading to my mis- or distrust, I’ve frequently been told the other party doesn’t remember saying what they said or doing what they did. This implies I’m nitpicking, ridiculously sensitive, keeping score, or even making it up. I wonder if I’m being gaslighted, or if I’m just not a nice person.

Years and years ago I made a rule for myself: give every situation or person three chances before deciding not to trust. It still feels fair to me. Sometimes things happen. We have a bad day. We say hurtful things, or don’t keep our word, or make a boneheaded choice, breaking trust with someone. I know I’ve done it, and I’d like to be given the benefit of a doubt.

The benefit of a doubt is fair, right?

I still follow that rule. It feels appropriately kind to others and like good self-care. Yet I feel guilt nearly every day over the people in my life who I want to trust, feel that I should trust, and don’t trust.

Babauta’s article specifically addresses signs of distrust of ourselves, and some ideas about practicing self-trust. I never connected problems with focus, fear or uncertainty, procrastination or indecision with lack of self-trust, but I can see they might be. If we don’t trust our priorities, resilience, or choices, it’s difficult to be decisive or take risks with commitments and problem solving.

If we don’t trust ourselves to cope effectively with sudden changes and reversals and frightening situations, uncertainty and chaos disable us, making us vulnerable to anyone or anything promising relief, certainty, or help.

The boundary between trust in ourselves and trust in others is permeable. If we define ourselves, as I do, as “having trust issues,” presumably that includes issues with ourselves as well as others.

It makes me shudder to imagine living with no feeling of belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of anyone or anything. How could anyone sustain such an emotionally isolated condition, not only from those around them but from themselves?

I do have people in my life I trust. Is it possible I don’t have trust issues? Is that just a polite, apologetic, and roundabout way of avoiding a direct “I don’t trust you?”

Do I have to answer that?

It’s true I trust far fewer people than I distrust.

But it’s also true I give people and situations a chance. Three chances, in fact. At least.

Why does it seem so cruel to tell someone we don’t trust them?

Trust, as I experience it, is not all or nothing. I might trust a person to be kind and caring but never allow them to drive me anywhere. I might trust a person with money but never trust them to be on time. I trust myself to be there for others, but I haven’t trusted myself to be there for me.

Consumerism is about distrust. We’re actively groomed to distrust ourselves. Yesterday I was laughing with a friend about articles on MSN. There was an article about trends and fashion in decorating, as though it matters. Shiplap is out. White kitchens are out. Accent walls are out. Then there was an article about how to properly fold plastic grocery bags. I’m not kidding. Did you know you’ve been storing plastic grocery bags the WRONG WAY all these years? How could you be so incompetent? A capitalist culture only survives as long as people buy things, and advertising (and a lot of other media) is about the ways you need to improve, do it right, be better.

Advertising is manufactured distrust. We’re inadequate, but a widget would make us better. We buy, and we discover we still don’t feel good enough, and another ad tells us we need a nidget. So we buy that, but then we see a gidget on sale that will make us even better …

Who benefits most from our lack of trust in ourselves?

I believe information is power. I believe education is power. I believe in science, data, and critical thinking. I trust those things.

Who benefits most from the breakdown of public education, the demonization and gutting of scientific organizations and communities, manufactured misinformation, manufactured disinformation, and “alternative facts?”

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

The Center For Nonviolent Communication says trust is a human need; it’s listed under connection needs. When our needs aren’t met, our health (mental, physical, emotional) suffers. If we are unable to trust we’re wide open to conspiracy theorists, ideologues, authoritarians, and other abusers and manipulators. Predators happily gorge off the results of manufactured distrust.

This is a big, big, problem, because it stands between us and managing things like climate change. Which, depending on who you talk to, isn’t even real because science has been the target of so much manufactured distrust.

One day, sooner rather than later in the Southwest, a switch won’t deliver electricity and a faucet won’t deliver water. Scientists have been talking about consequences of climate change and drought in the area for decades. It was one of the reasons I left my lifelong home in Colorado and came to Maine nearly eight years ago. A combination of manufactured distrust, denial, and the misplaced priority of winning the next election have effectively stopped any kind of collaborative or cooperative problem-solving around water usage throughout the Colorado River watershed, and here we are, on the brink of multi-state disaster that will affect the whole country.

Trust is a choice we make many times a day. Do we trust our families, coworkers, and friends? Do we trust the headlines we read, the news anchor we hear, or the algorithms providing us with “information” on social media? Do we trust what lands in our Inbox or the unfamiliar number calling us? Do we trust the oncoming car will really stop so we can safely walk across the busy street?

More importantly, do we trust our own instincts, feelings, and capability? Do we actively teach our children to trust theirs? Do we encourage our friends and loved ones to trust themselves? Or do we tell people they have it wrong, it didn’t happen, they’re being ridiculous, they don’t understand?

Choice comes with consequences and responsibility. Choice is dynamic; do we trust if we make a choice that doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we’ll choose again? Do we trust ourselves to be wrong and learn something before we choose again? Do we trust our ability to problem solve, bounce back, and do the best we can most of the time?

I suppose somewhere between having no trust at all and trusting everyone and everything lies a fine line of willingness to trust. We could approach new situations and people with curiosity and an open mind, be big enough to give the benefit of the doubt, and have healthy enough boundaries and the self-trust to disengage when we have evidence and experience indicating our trust is misplaced.

The first step in rejecting manufactured distrust is building trust in ourselves and demonstrating our own reliability, truth, ability or strength as we engage with others.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

New Script

I’ve written before about rewriting our personal narratives. I’m revisiting the idea, this time in terms of rewriting the past.

Pete Walker’s material on complex post-traumatic stress disorder suggests revisiting old traumas remaining in our memory as painful, nonhealing wounds, and rewriting. He talks about it in terms of time travel. One goes back, as an adult, into memories of childhood and enters the scene as a new character, creating a new and different narrative. Our adult selves can defend our child selves, shield them, help them explain themselves, provide comfort to them, and, if needed, remove them before whatever terrible experience occurred.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

Intrigued, I tried this method, and I was shocked, though I know the power of stories, at how well it worked and how much fun it was. Not only has it helped me heal from past trauma, it also strengthens my ability now to automatically stay on my own side and defend myself.

Seth Godin also talks about this concept. His language is “rewriting the script.” Same idea, slightly different presentation. Godin is business oriented, while Walker is psychology oriented.

Godin suggests, instead of saying to ourselves “here we go again,” we simply rewrite the script this time, which means we throw away our expectations and take each experience as a fresh one, rather than another terrible iteration of something in our past.

This is powerful for me as we navigate the process of moving house. I’ve done it more times before than I want to count, and I’ve always found it deeply traumatic, but this time is different. In spite of broken contracts, changing timelines, obstructions and reversals, and the usual financial and physical stresses, I’m managing to stay grounded and balanced. It feels like a rough patch, for sure, but I don’t feel traumatized. I have moments of amusement and even more moments of curiosity. What on earth will happen next? How will this all work out? Where will I be sitting in 6 months?

Old traumas and wounds are just that – old. We don’t have to insist new, similar experiences cut as deeply. It is a choice, although not an obvious one. We could just tear up our old scripts, the ones that hurt us, the ones that never work out for us, the ones filled with fear and heartbreak, and write a new one. Now does not have to be the same as then.

In yet another way to think about this, I came across advice from a writer on how to appreciate one’s progress. She, too, suggested time travel. If we feel stuck and as though we’re making no progress, and never have, and never will, and what person X told us way back when we were children, that we’ll never amount to anything, seems a curse we can never lift, we can sit quietly with ourselves and think back a year, or five, or ten. Stepping back helps us gain perspective and see exactly how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, how much we’ve grown. What if we went back, in imagination, to cheer on the self we were a year ago, whispering to them of all the wonderful progress ahead?

Scripts and storylines can be changed. We don’t have to give them our power. It’s so easy to forget that. It takes an act of presence and will to change the script and reclaim our power, but we can let go of our limiting expectations and beliefs and allow ourselves a different kind of experience. Not here we go again, but here’s a new experience – I wonder what will happen?

Sometimes all we need to do is shift our gaze from the hopeless and frightening places where we have no power and focus on the places we do. If we can stay there, rest there, live there, the chaos and tumult, though unpleasant, won’t knock us down and trample us. Such times pass by, pass over without traumatizing us, and we’ll come out on the other side more resilient than ever.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Moving Again

All my life I’ve felt traumatized by how frequently I’ve moved house. My general insecurity makes uprooting myself a fearful ordeal.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

This time, as we go through the process of selling this old farm and searching for a new place, I’m realizing for the first time how valuable my experience of moving is. My resentment about it is falling away.

I know most people approach finding a new home from the will-this-place-suit-me direction, and that’s probably practical and sensible. I can and have done that many times, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about whether I will suit the new place, and being curious about how I might fit my life into it rather than forcing it to accommodate me.

I do this because, as I’m realizing now, every place I’ve lived has changed me, challenged me, and shown me new aspects of myself. I’ve never had much money and therefore been unable to have a wide choice or completely renovate, so I’ve learned to adapt and adjust to wherever I am. For the first time in my life, I’m seeing what strength and power lie in that kind of resilience.

I’ve lived in homes, apartments, dorms, a trailer, a log cabin, and my parents’ home (as an adult). I’ve rented and I’ve owned, bought and sold, and been a landlady. I’ve lived with husbands, my kids, assorted animals, and friends. I’ve lived by myself. I’ve lived in large places with ample storage and closets and small places with one closet in the entire house.

Now, as I approach my 60s, I think I know a lot about what I need, what’s important, and how adaptable I am. Of course, I thought that at 50 when I came to Maine, but this old farmhouse taught me a great deal more. And the new house will teach me yet more. During my time in this house, I also became a minimalist, which has had a huge impact on my priorities and the amount of stuff I manage.

Leaving the place I know, no matter what this house’s challenges, is hard. I am, at least, familiar with the current problems and challenges. But I also know what I love; I’m already grieving the loss of this beautiful 26 acres, the gardens, the wildlife, the views out the windows, the way the sun comes into my little attic aerie, and the shrill spring song of the peepers in the pond.

I realize, however, that the next place I live will present me with new joys. I don’t know what they will be. They won’t be exactly like what I’m leaving. But a new space holds new possibilities and new discoveries, along with fresh challenges.

The thing about limits and challenges is the opportunity they hold. I’m excited by the prospect of creatively solving problems I encounter. One of the good things about having little financial resource is that I’ve been forced to rely on creative, low-cost solutions. If one doesn’t have money to throw at problems, one has to find another way.

Finding another way has always been a journey worth taking for me, a journey into my own power, ability, and creativity. Without the help of abundant money, it can seem like a long, slow, journey, uncomfortable and occasionally even tortuous, but filled with discovery and satisfaction. The new space and I will work together to make something functional and beautiful. We’ll find out about one another. We’ll take care of one another.

We’ll make a new home together.

Jenny’s attic is waiting for her. Fall, 2014