You Crazy

Some years ago I had the incredibly bad judgment to run as a libertarian-leaning Republican for the United States Senate. I had no money, no connections, and no success.

To give you a feel for what the experience was like, I’d like to share an incident from the campaign trail that is totally 100% true, as far as I can remember it.

~~~

Steamboat Springs, a swanky resort town, lies up in northern Colorado, well out of the way of anything. It sports a slightly uppity air, though it seems to have never completely escaped its earthier, hippie roots. I walked into the Gucci-style hotel where I’d be attending a two-day conference about political liberty. I was there to gin up support for my campaign.

Loitering in the hall outside the main room, I met Leo. He struck me as a typical pissed-off conservative, the kind I was meeting a lot of on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, we had a pleasant discussion, and he seemed a bit receptive to my candidacy. But then . . .

That evening at the outdoor cocktail reception I ambled up to a picnic table at which about seven women and one man were seated, having what seemed to me to be a muted small-talk kind of conversation. I did my routine introduction. “Hi, I’m Luke and I’m running for the United States Senate. What would you folks like to see from your next U.S. Senator?” Leo, whom I had not recognized at first, spoke up.

“BALLS!” he shouted. “I want to know that you’ve got some BALLS!”

Grinning, I said, “Well, I’ve got a family with two kids at home and I’ve taken a big risk-”

“I don’t want to hear about your kids! I want to hear that you’ve got BALLS!” The women around the table seemed to be chuckling uncomfortably, as if they were half-embarrassed, half-amused. “All’a them crooked politicians wuss out when they get to Washington, so you’ve gotta have some BALLS!”

I moved to extricate myself from the conversation.

“I’m telling you, you gotta have BALLS!”

~~~

Leo was not abnormal. A little drunk, maybe, but more or less typical for what I regularly ran into among the polity. For example, there was the pleasant-looking woman who, upon learning I was running for office, started yelling at me. This was at the same political freedom conference where I met Leo.

Then there was the deli owner I met in Buena Vista who suggested that we should drop nuclear bombs on Iran. He was pissed — really, really pissed — that I didn’t agree.

I met with a “liberty-minded” group in Boulder that professed to agree with policy positions that I also held. When I met with them for the purpose of expressing my agreement with their policies, they treated me like I was crazy. (The hell of it is, they were right.)

Over in Grand Junction, I met with some other “liberty” types. Under intense and vehement questioning from one of the guys there, I allowed as how — in extreme cases — a politician might have to stretch the Commerce Clause and some spend federal money to improve the Grand Junction area. His wife later said in a group email that I should be “slaughtered in the streets.”

All of these people were on “my” side in political matters. I know what you’re thinking, and no, the problem wasn’t that I was on the wrong team. I saw enough of the Democrat side of things to know that there was plenty of crazy there, too.

In the months and years after my abortive and embarrassing foray into politics, I had plenty of time to reflect. What did I do wrong? What the hell was I thinking? What is the deal with people…and with me?

It didn’t take too much reflection to figure out my mistake. Though I knew better, I treated people as if they knew their own preferences, knew what they believed, meant what they said, and would act in reasonable accordance with those things. Of course they wouldn’t!

People are crazy and corrupt and irrational! By “people” I mean you, personally, and me. You don’t believe me on this point. But you are irrational almost all of the time. As am I.

In the subsequent years, a few people asked whether I’d ever run for political office again. I told them that if I were ever to run again, I’d run a satirical campaign. It’d be a two-pronged approach:

(1) Use and embody the slogan, “I agree with you!” No matter what any regular person you meet on the campaign trail says to you, agree with a smile and truly, sincerely, feigned authenticity.

(2) Any time a political opponent articulates a policy position, vehemently state your disagreement with it and then promptly restate the same policy — in simpler words — as your own position.

People gave me a courtesy laugh when I said I’d actually get elected despite the satirical approach. Do you really think it wouldn’t work? It just did. I give you: President Trump.

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On the Election

Rino: “She’s a charlatan, you see.”

Dino: “Ah, well, point taken, Rino. However, one must be cognizant of the utter buffoonery of your man. One worries that his skullduggery will win over whatever businesslike judgment he may possess.”

Rino: “True enough, Dino, though the bold patriot is obligated to inspect the diplomatic judgment of one who cannot seem to follow protocol for sensitive information, which as you must concede is rather crucial to the job.”

Dino: “Admittedly so. By way of rejoinder, may I posit that an inability to control written communication — while not trivial — may not suffer the same grave consequence as a consummate misallocation of the oral form? I tell you, Rino, if he speaks in private as he does in public on matters of substance, just imagine the interchanges to which the public will not be privy but that are certain to occur, such as between the Leader of the Free World and the various allies and despots and other more or less significant hoity toity figures.”

Rino: “So well said, and you may have a point. On the other hand, one worries that your favored applicant, together with her infamous husband, has an unscrupulous history, rampant with examples of deceit, self-service, petulance, and collusion. I see on your kindly visage the reasonable retort: My man is not guilt-free, what from his blinkered real estate developments to his overwrought educational endeavor to his hectoring of various business or celebrity personages, all the while carrying on with his smugly affected displays of opulence.”

Dino: “Indeed, just so.”

Rino: “Such considerations illuminate what we have perhaps thus far omitted to contemplate: What arguments can be mustered in favor of either one? Pray tell, what insights would you share, Dino?”

Dino: “I heartily accept the invitation and hasten to point out that my partisan knows the system through and through, having worked within it to some degree for upwards of two score. I grant you that such conditioning cuts two ways, but surely it tilts in her favor. Consider that a neophyte may be woefully ill-equipped to learn on the job.”

Rino: “Yes, yes, that’s true. For the gentleman’s part, he carries a refreshing new perspective that may be precisely what the system calls for. A little revolution can revitalize a republic, no? Though now that I have aired this thought, one notices just how wrought with risk such an endeavor is…-”

Dino: “No, I see what you mean, Rino. We have been promised change (and — one notes with sardonic grunting — hope) for well nigh a decade and little has occurred. A newcomer’s perspective could, as they say, ‘shake things up a bit.'”

Rino: “Your kindness being appreciated on the point, I worry perhaps about the degree of course correction for which we may be in store, Dino. More than 90 degrees in either direction and one wonders whether we can even be said to be on the same journey as we were before.”

Dino: “Verily, but perchance we had the wrong destination in mind in the first place. My sympathies evolve the more you lay out your case. Should we not take a different aim?”

Rino: “Woe be to us were we to change the core of who we are as a body politic! Might that not be imprudent? Surely some consistency is called for, lest one no longer properly call himself a ‘patriot.’”

Dino: “Progress! That is the mantle of the true patriot. Complacency can only lead to mass suffering and death, Rino. We must needs change our ways. Trump is the only viable with even a slim chance of effectuating systemic evolution!”

Rino: “My concern for you grows, Dino! Do you not value continuity, predictability, and steadiness? Hillary wins my vote!”

All the Difference

“We need to go the hospital today. No rush,” my mom said.

“Ok,” I answered, still smooshing the sleep from my eyes.

I stumbled out of bed and did the normal summer morning things, in no particular hurry. As I ate my breakfast and generally lollygagged around, though, I slowly noticed that the adults were acting weird.

Nana and Bumpa were there, of course. My dad’s parents had come down to Houston from Illinois in order to help out while Dad was in the hospital. Other family had come from far away, too, which was great because we didn’t get to see them very often. Today, they were off, though.

Dad just needed to have an operation. He had cancer, yeah, but all he needed was a bone marrow transplant and he’d be fine. The odds weren’t great; I knew that. Dad liked his math and told us kids that he was 50/50 on surviving. But, come on, math is one thing but this was Dad. Dad was tough, he was strong, the downside of the math didn’t apply to him.

My brother was oddly quiet and compliant that summer morning as we finally gathered our stuff and piled into our mustard yellow 1981 Volvo for the 45 minute drive to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Weird, I thought.

I hadn’t been to the hospital very much over the previous few weeks. The last time I had seen Dad, he was intubated and pretty weak. He couldn’t talk, could barely move. But this was Dad; he’d be fine. I hadn’t stayed at his bedside for very long because…well, because I was an 11 year old boy and just didn’t have much to say. As I turned to leave, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I said goodbye, as in “I’ll see you in another day or two when they take that thing out of your mouth.” He looked at me and said goodbye in a different way, speaking as loudly as he could with his eyes.

On this morning, we walked through the bleached, depressing hospital hallways, stopping short of Dad’s room. That’s when Mom’s face changed. She looked at my big brother and me and told us. Dad had died during the night. Joel already knew, of course, because he was older and smarter. But I was slower on the uptake.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Dad was too strong to die. He was a pilot, an astronaut candidate. He had been an eagle scout, an outdoorsman, a strong and fit and determined man. Smarter than damn near anybody, he had endured physical challenges with hearty enthusiasm. This was the guy who went running in shorts and a t-shirt during the Alaskan winter and came back with sweat-cicles on his shoulders.

He couldn’t be dead. Yeah, intellectually — whatever that means for an 11 year old boy — I knew Dad could die. But not really. Right?

And I wept. Hard. Right there in the ugly hospital hallway. And Mom held me. She held me until I was done.

In the Volvo on the way home I looked out the window from the back seat at the clouds over the sprawling Houston skyline, letting my mind absorb the shock. “That’s it then. It’s just Mom and Joel and me now. That’s my new reality.”

~~~

Thirty years later, much has happened since Dad’s strength gave out. Joel has left us, as have Nana and some other, older relatives. We have new additions to the clan, too, through marriage and birth.

And of course, the wider world has moved on, experiencing triumph and loss and joy and pain and boredom and anger and happiness and all that other stuff of life.

Today, on this thirtieth anniversary of my dad’s death, tragedy — more sudden and brazen — has struck again to 50 or so other families.

When my world was rocked all those years ago, Mom held me. She held me and didn’t let go until I had let it all out. That made all the difference.

My hope is that the families in pain today have someone to hold them. Someone to hold them until they let it all out. It makes all the difference.


I originally wrote this post on June 12, 2016, and put in on Facebook. I’ve re-posted here for archival purposes. It makes reference to the mass shooting in Orlando that occurred on that day.

What the Men Taught Me

‘Cause I’m pan handlin’, man handling’,
Post holin’, high rollin’, dust bowlin’ daddy!

-Amarillo Highway

Jack would belt out the Terry Allen lyrics to Amarillo Highway at random. It was an expression of joy, inspiring fawning admiration from boys yearning to be men.

It was also a pre-hipster, pre-millennial, pre-grunge (remember that?) Pied Piper call to feigned authenticity. We wanted to know the song, to have had the shared experience, to feel as if we knew the same things that Jack knew. Because he was smart and cool and tough, and we wanted to be smart and cool and bold enough to burst into song like that and have people fawning over our own wise-man auras.

It was the high school years, and Jack was the brilliant Young Life rebel leader. He eschewed rules and regulations and convention, preached the Gospel of the great revolutionary, Jesus. With intellectual heft (he introduced us to the word “eschewed,” for example), he taught us that Jesus was the antidote to the Bogus World System.

There was an authentic fight to be fought and manly men (and womanly women) would enlist and scrap and scrape and devote themselves to the Cause of Christ.

We would learn humility and be better at it than anyone else. We would love others more than ourselves. We would share the Gospel not through preaching but through living, setting the example of awesomeness, all while recognizing our utter worthlessness without Jesus.

We would love. And that love would be a sharp-edged, masculine, hardscrabblin’, pan handlin’, post holing’, dust bowling’ kind of love such as the world had rarely seen.

~~~

Conflict plus resolution equals intimacy.

Tend to the small things in your marriage or they will become big things.

We go to the mountaintop to see where we’ve been and to see where we want to go, but we can’t live up there.

-all quotes from Skeet

Skeet, an engineer by training, adhered to certainty. If you were to learn a bit of wisdom, you should keep it, repeat it, treasure it, store it.

He was the aloof, quiet director of Wilderness Ranch back in the days when Kendall Ruth was riding in John Wayne’s Horse. Guiding high school kids through the Colorado wilderness for six days embodied the ultimate Jesus adventure: Get dirty, get raw, and get found by Jesus.

As guides on these adventures, though, Skeet wanted us to discover what was right and to execute it over and over again. Improvisation was only allowed when it was Jesus-driven. Otherwise we had to stick to “ranch policy,” an unwritten, unarticulated, unknowable set of imagined rules that gave a pretense of certainty where none existed.

Humility was key because God would break you one way or another. We were prideful people aware of our arrogance, desperately asking our Father to make us humble, and recognizing that our sincerity in that endeavor was irrelevant because we would be humbled regardless. And we took a certain measure of unexpressed pride in that.

~~~

There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity.
There are others who desire to know in order that they themselves be known: that is vanity.
Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable.
But there are those who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.

-Bernard of Clairvaux

I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Health, by Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

-Hippocrates

I had asked Ron’s daughter to marry me. She had said yes.

Performing his fatherly duty, Ron took me for a ride in his Porsche for a little man-to-man talk. “You can always say no to me,” he said, for Ron was keen to foster healthy family interactions.

As a surgeon, Ron knew how to give orders and be obeyed. As a conservative Christian — at the time, a self-described fundamentalist — he knew what it meant to be the spiritual head of the household. As a serious church-goer, he knew the danger of being an overbearing father-in-law, one who could impose his ego on others.

Always striving to be closer to God, Ron wanted to be sure that I knew where his heart was. In his too-flattering manner — an overwrought graciousness born of a fear of his own arrogance — Ron attributed to me virtue and wisdom and forthrightness that I didn’t deserve.

Overcorrecting and inaccuracy remains a problem, 20 years later. Out of a misapplied reverence to ancient wisdom, Ron often refers to the Bernard of Clairvaux quote above and others like it. When I point out, as I have many times, that he as a doctor and I as a lawyer sell our knowledge, he deflects the issue of our dishonor and clings to the quote.

The same goes for the Hippocratic Oath, which Ron believes should be required of every medical student when they enter school rather than when they leave. When I point out that such students would be swearing by pagan gods and not the Christian one, he again deflects the issue.

And when I said the big “no” in 2006 after rejecting Christ, Ron could no longer deflect. Robbed of his primary tool for dealing with dissonant ideas, he seemed lost and conflicted for a while. But like an overloaded computer, he rebooted and found his standard starting point. Bernard and Hippocrates continue to pop up as if there was never a problem in the first place.

~~~

These men taught me to check my own ego at the door of every relationship. Jack and Skeet and Ron modeled for me how to struggle with male arrogance and how, at times, to overcome it. They showed me that the essence of strength, of manliness, is putting others before self, especially when it’s difficult.

Alas…they also showed me how to fail. Ron made an attempt to understand why I rejected god, but his defensiveness arising from his ego cut me deeper than few have ever been able to. Skeet, after a brief conversation about poor reasoning — about ideas, mind you — called me a fool and refused to continue speaking with me. Jack, despite a decade having passed since I rejected Christ, simply hasn’t seemed interested.

Skeet won’t talk to me and Jack just doesn’t (the latter of which — to be fair — is a mutual failing). I still see Ron regularly because he’s family, but we cannot manage a conversation about anything more substantive than the status of the Texas Rangers. These men, once so important in my life, have faded away by choice, indifference, or inability.

I get what you’re thinking: No one is obliged to care about me. That’s true. And the point here isn’t really about my relationship to these one-time role models.

The point…the point is…. What is the point?

I guess I just want to say that if you’re serious about humility, it means that you have to be able to say, “I’m wrong.” Not just about little things, either. If you were wrong in how you spoke to your wife that one time, you have to tell her.

If you were wrong about how you yelled at your kid, you’ve got to learn to apologize and, more importantly, change so that you don’t do it again.

If you’re wrong about Jesus, you have to admit it, no matter the consequences.

I may be wrong now. I invite you to show me how I am.

A Long Overdue Attack on the Worship of Motherhood

We need to feel important sometimes. I get it. Feeling great about being ME! counts as one of the basic needs on that whole Maslow hierarchy thing that I didn’t pay attention to in Psych 101. It was right below Food and just above Scratching Where It Itches. Or the other way ’round.

This primordial drive manifests in myriad ways in today’s modern context. You’ve got your classics. The career-driven go-getter. The person sitting next to you who talks six of the seven hours of your non-stop Honolulu to Denver redeye about her job, her vacay in Kaua’i, recent dental exams, groceries, etc. and never once makes eye contact or asks you a question that she expects an answer to. And then there’s my personal favorite: the one-upper. He’s the guy who’s never impressed by your stories but always expects you to be suitably animated about his. “Wait, wait, this is even better….”

None of that’s news, generationally speaking. We’ve always had these folks around us — hell, we’ve all been these people at least once — and I think they’ll continue to avoid the endangered list.

By contrast, I’ve noticed the slow creep of a waxing cultural crescendo. It was conceived in the womb of Women’s Lib, way back in the day, entered its toddlerhood in the backlash against the roaring 80s and Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl, and it’s now awkwardly gangling into the preteen years. It blights our schools, befouls our suburbs, and infects Facebook with smarmy ecards and faux woe-to-me humblebrags.

You know of what I write. It’s the nemesis of the lazy afternoon and the slayer of general contentedness, the bane of all that is good and holy about being in the treasured demographic of 35-55 year olds with $5000 or more in disposable income: Motherhood.

Well, not motherhood per se. Rather, it is the worship of the trials and tribulations of motherhood, the deification of this most ancient and basic act of species-preservation. In particular, it is the apotheosis of the struggle of motherhood that concerns me here.

Some time in the last fifteen years everyone has bought into the cultural creed that admits — nay, proclaims! — freely and without reservation, that motherhood is the hardest job in the world. More than that, we seem even to enjoy fixating on and relishing the difficulty that accompanies the most visible and long-term consequences of sex.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Being a mother is hard. (So, is, not-so-incidentally, being a father. A good one, anyway.) And it’s perhaps the most important job in the world. But it is not the hardest job in the world.

Being a coal miner is a hard job. Accompanying Lewis and Clark on an expedition is a hard job. I was in Mexico not so long ago, and there was a bent-backed septuagenarian woman who cleaned nasty toilets at a working man’s marina everyday. That was a hard job.

After giving birth (which is so hard it does not even look possible), you have two jobs as a mom, or as a parent, really. One: Keep your kid alive. Two: Love your kid. (Chris Rock put it differently, but the idea is the same. Warning: NSFW.)

Task One is doomed to failure. One hundred percent of parents cannot accomplish this for long enough. One hopes to be lucky and see one’s children grow into old age, and you do what you can to mitigate unnecessary risks. But ultimately, every parent fails this sisyphean task. Failure here is not hard to accomplish; it is inhumanly hard to endure. Above all, though, it is inevitable.

Task Two can be achieved by anyone, with varying results and quality. Though anyone can do it, it is on this task that we so often fail, and for no good reason. I think we fail on this task because we have a generally terrible and incomplete understanding of what it means to love.

As readers of this blog know, I gave up my faith in god some time ago. Nevertheless, I remain grateful for some of the moral training I received via the Church. At the top of the list of moral insights is this:

Your life is not about you.

The attitude embodied in the “last shall be first and first shall be last” maxim of Christian faith represents perhaps the most valuable and least understood keys to happiness. The whole point of life is to maximize the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

And the way to maximize your own wellbeing is to forget about doing so and to focus on maximizing someone else’s.

Being a mother presents a prime opportunity for doing the latter. Of course, “maximizing wellbeing” creates a constant conflict between our present and future selves. We sometimes have to give up happiness now for more later. Or vice versa.

This isn’t just high falutin’ philosophy talk. It translates into real world applications.

When your daughter cries and whines and begs after you denied her a piece of candy, you have to decide. Do you give it to her anyway? That would increase your immediate happiness and perhaps hers. But you may be giving up some measure of future happiness for both of you as well. Leaving aside the health consequences, your daughter will be more likely to cry and whine and beg in the future in order to get her way, which begets misery for all in the vicinity, including that selfsame child.

IMG_3851
A great mom.

In such circumstances, in the heat of the moment, when you’re tired or cranky or distracted, I grant you that it is hard to always know what to do and how to act. It is difficult to know how to love in every circumstance. And what do I mean by “love”? I mean that it is hard to know how to give of your life so that someone else may have a happier one. This act of sacrifice, I argue, is no sacrifice at all. It is the surest path to our own happiness.

But the context of motherhood does not make the task any harder than it usually is. Indeed, it makes it easier. Consider: Would you rather focus on increasing the happiness of, say, a co-worker or the precious child you live with? From which of these do you receive the most love in return?

Let’s not forget that some moms have it pretty easy. They’ve got easy kids, easy lives, healthy relationships. Yes, this is possible, and we need not pretend that it isn’t.

Of course, some moms have it unimaginably hard. They may live in poverty, in squalor, in slavery, or in an abusive relationship, religion, or state. These are not features of motherhood, however. They are features of difficult life circumstances that exacerbate the challenging task of being a good mother.

Women who must endure the worst that life has to offer while also trying to raise good children deserve our utmost respect and admiration. To pretend that the suburban mom whose family has a steady income and a comfortable life and psychologically and physically average kids has struggles on par with the most difficult jobs out there is to demean the plight of those who don’t.

So how about we do this: Let’s talk about motherhood soberly. We can recognize its challenges while also acknowledging that some women have it pretty easy. Let’s be honest about our own situations and let’s not focus on the ME! factor. No one-upping, no faux suffering, no fabricated drama. The real suffering and drama will suffice.

Being a mom can be hard. Being a good, honest, healthy person — mother or not — is harder. Let’s strive for that.

Opinions

The professor stood in front of the whiteboard, finger raised in righteous purpose before twenty totally focused students of Ancient Greek. The bearded, unkempt, bespectacled academic had suspended his recitation of the intricacies of noun declensions to hold forth on the “why” of it all.

Lower lip trembling as if he were close to tears, Dr. Johnson proclaimed, “A liberal arts education changes you. It doesn’t just — or even primarily — prepare you for a job. It is about becoming a better version of yourself.”

He stared us down, making the depth of his point via the passion on his face.

~~~

“I want to be an apologist, maybe as a professor at a university or something,” I said to Dr. Smith, another of my Classics professors. We had been chatting informally in the hallway outside his office. He had asked what I wanted to do with my life.

Dr. Smith had dedicated his life and heart to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus. Even some of his tests in Ancient Greek were designed with a missionary purpose…concurrent with high quality language instruction.

“That’s interesting,” he replied. “But the point of a university is to seek Truth, wherever it is to be found. As an apologist, you are — by design — saying you have the Truth and must defend it. You are defending the Faith, not advancing it.”

~~~

I spent ten years or so in college, progressing from an undergraduate at a Baptist school majoring in Religion and minoring in Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin), to a Masters student learning Business, to a law student. Over that long and varied span, the project, the telos, the point of education became clear to me.

There are two, actually. First, job preparation. Though this never took with me particularly, I recognize that many people go to university to be better able to land desirable employment after school.

Second, training of the mind. With a proper education, you learn how to learn. You learn how much you don’t know. You learn to take in information, digest it, analyze it, and — crucially — critique it. If the information conflicts with other conclusions you hold, you learn how to more or less simultaneously challenge the validity of the new data and examine your previous conclusions. Using the techniques of science, reason, and discussion, you gradually learn how to arrive at the conclusions that are more likely than not to hold up over time.

That is, after a proper education, you change, as Dr. Johnson expressed so passionately and, as Dr. Smith suggested, you become equipped to discover Truth with some reliable measure of precision.

Part of the project is to learn how to reject old ideas, no matter how deeply held, and to adopt new ones. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to hold a conclusion provisionally, always subject to new evidence or argumentation.

At least this is what I thought education was for…

But I noticed that even professors who taught me to critique literature or to evaluate the merits of a business merger or to tear apart a line of constitutional argument would cling emotionally to deeply held beliefs. Some opinions simply ran too deep. They reached the core of the professor’s identity and as such sat beyond his willingness to apply the very techniques he was teaching us.

I recall an incident in law school. My Corporations professor had veered from scholarly instruction into the murky realm of indoctrination. He was a socialist at heart, you see, and so saw fit to rail against the concept of corporate stock being understood as “property” in any real sense of the word. Departing from the standard deference that students give professors who are on a tear, I challenged — politely, I thought — the professor’s opinion about stock. For my efforts, the next morning he treated me to a private chew-out session in his office, even suggesting that I drop the class. He said he had never been so insulted in his sixteen years of teaching law students. To be clear, my only challenge was to his ideas; I never asserted anything untoward about his character.

The surreality of this situation has stuck with me for more than a decade, and it comes to mind any time I find myself in disagreement with someone else on any issue that runs emotionally deep. It was surreal, of course, because it occurred at an institution that was specifically designed to teach me to argue points such as the one raised that day in Corporations.

It also comes to mind because, even though most of the people I know beyond a passing familiarity do in fact hold university degrees, I so rarely find anyone who can distinguish between a critique of their ideas and an attack on their character. Instead, they tend to act like the Corporations professor.

I don’t have the actual data, but it certainly seems that most of the discussions I have that delve into closely held opinions end poorly. Almost without exception, my interlocutor feels insulted.

Now, I grant that I can be brash. I do my best — I really do! — to keep my comments directed at the ideas being discussed, but my manner and demeanor seem to be substantially off-putting. I’ve known this about myself since I was young and I have put in a non-trivial amount of effort to be as polite as I can in such conversations without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of criticism (again, of ideas). Nevertheless, I seem to piss people off.

Even when I think I’m being polite, though, as with the law school professor mentioned above and with others, this doesn’t generally mollify my counterpart. Among the accusations commonly directed at me in such discussions are these:

  • “You just want to be right.”
  • “You want everyone to agree with you.”
  • “You want to dominate the conversation.”
  • “You won’t change your mind.”

What can I say? I do want to be right.

Not for reasons of ego, but because I simply don’t want to be wrong a minute longer than I have to.

Also, I want to find areas of agreement because the whole point of discussions on matters of some controversy is to arrive at a better approximation of the Truth.

Since I’m writing on my blog, I guess I am dominating the conversation. In a real exchange, however, I feel this charge is unfair because I so rarely try to shout people down. If they digress, devolve into insults, or (very commonly) speak incoherently, I will generally end the conversation. Whether that counts as dominance, I’m not sure.

Finally, I most definitely do want to change my mind, if it warrants changing. And I have. As a youngster, I went from being a sort of agnostic to a serious, dedicated Christian. As an adult, I changed my mind about that and rejected religion and faith. As a law clerk at the Montana Supreme Court, I regularly engaged in political and social arguments with a fellow clerk. She almost never made sense in these discussions, but her willingness to engage permitted me to really challenge and clarify my own thinking. As a result, my opinions evolved substantially on matters like the treatment of animals.

Over the last few years, my opinions on abortion, gay marriage, foreign policy, gun rights, and real estate agency have undergone huge changes, though I’ll understand if you don’t ask me about them.

Opinions were made to be changed. The fact that certain religious, political, and social points of view run so deep as to give us our very identities does not mean those opinions should remain constant. The better parts of judgment and personal development would to be change who we are when we discover we are wrong. This is the ultimate self-improvement project, and I plan to continue it.

I’d love to have you join me. But I’ll understand if you don’t.