Conviction is an important attribute. As the old song goes, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” Yet conviction has a curious status in today’s world.
On the one hand, my students often express the sentiment that they cannot really critique another person’s ideas. Taking an “it’s their opinion, so who am I to judge?” attitude, they hesitate to draw any ethical or moral lines. This often forces me to pose extreme or bizarre scenarios in an attempt to elicit at least one “Okay, you are right: I can’t go there.” One of my commitments as a college educator is to teach students how to develop and confidently articulate their moral convictions, informed by their experience but also by sound knowledge and critical thinking—rather than capitulating to a pure relativism that feels socially safer.
Curiously, this “who am I go judge?” attitude proliferates amidst a highly divisive society fed by the partisan echo chambers of media and social media. Forgetting that some of their Facebook (and possibly “IRL”) friends might be targets of their rants—or just not caring—people post or re-post status updates that trade in sweeping, absolutist stereotypes that distort the complexities of our lives and who we are as individuals. (Last week, for example, I learned from an acquaintance with whom I share a genuine mutual regard that I apparently am “an enemy of American liberty.” I had no idea.) With no room for nuance or actual conversation in these spaces, conviction tips readily into self-righteousness. If the Christian sin of pride is at work in the world today, it is in our cultural-political modes of speech.
The Christian antidote to the sin of pride is humility. This, too, is a worthy attribute based in the recognition that we all are limited in perspective and knowledge. But too much humility can smother the expression of conviction. This can be especially dangerous for those voices who historically have been silenced by a sort of 11th Commandment that “Thou shalt not think too highly of yourself.” Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, anyone?
If we want to move forward with both conviction and humility, perhaps we could learn something from the Buddhist counsel to remain curious about the world. Tara Brach, a teacher in the Vipassana tradition, commends curiosity as an approach to pain (physical or psycho-emotional) or anxiety or really anything troubling, including other people or external circumstances. Instead of overly identifying with the pain or the irritant, she suggests we instead observe it with curiosity. What might be revealed if we are just curiously observant? What might we see and hear?
A practice of curiosity is easier said than done in a world where we are conditioned to just react. I struggle to listen with curiosity to those ideas that run counter to my own, especially when supporting facts seem to be distorted. More like my students than I’d prefer to admit, I often hold my tongue to keep the peace even while quietly fuming. Quiet fuming does not breed curiosity or an openness to hear the other person however. I also have a tendency to take it personally when people I know (and possibly love) express convictions that seem so starkly contrary to my own. But if those holding such convictions are people whom I respect and love, then shouldn’t that open me up all the more rather than shut me down?
Curiosity as an active, intentional practice can help us do our work with both conviction and openness. How and where can you cultivate your spirit of curiosity this week?
Photo Credit: zawtowers, Flickr Creative Commons