What is it about human character that makes it so easy for us to judge one another? It is so easy, dangerously easy sometimes, for us to assume that we understand what another human being is feeling, why they are reacting the way they are, and to immediately swing into that you-should-do-this, I-know better-than-you mode of thinking and talking.
We mean well, at least sometimes – many of us certainly have an at least somewhat altruistic urge to help other people, to try to fix their problems. But how often does the way we go about it have more impact than the guidance we are actually trying to convey? How often does our approach scuttle our potentially useful information? How often do we inadvertently hurt more than we help?
I’ve got a microcosm of this in front of me right now. I recently described my husband of 20 years in this space as a personal bulwark and my secret weapon, which he is. He is also, and has been since I first met him when we were 20, the most self-assured person I have ever known. Not generally arrogant, not pompous or anything, just quietly, fundamentally self-assured. He is a very bright man, a very good thinker, highly analytical and highly articulate. He’s right about things a whole lot of the time, and he knows his own history on that front. And because of that, he tends to say what he means pretty directly. Dave sees the world in pretty clear distinctions of black and white, and how you couch the facts is less important to him than the facts themselves.
This has never been a problem for me – I’m not exactly a shrinking violet myself, and I can certainly hold my own with a strong personality most of the time. But our two sons are 10 and almost 14, and I don’t know if it’s the age or their own personalities, but they are much more thin-skinned than Dave and I are. At this moment, both are nursing resentments toward him over offhand comments that they interpreted as cutting. I know that Dave intended the comments as a joke – but also as a way of pointing out to them where they had made a mistake. In both cases, however, I happen to know that Dave was missing part of the story. And the kids know that, too. And it worries me that there is another tick mark in the “Dad doesn’t understand me” column inside their heads.
Several researchers, most notably Richard Florida, have documented that tolerance toward people who are different from ourselves is one of the marks of the most successful places in the modern, post-industrial economy. Tolerance is hard to define, but it has at least two levels.
One is co-existence – live and let live. You live, work, have fun in a different way than I do, and that’s OK. To each his own.
The second level is a little deeper, but I think becomes a logical outgrowth of that first level: the willingness to accept that there might be some truth, some validity, something that I can learn from in the fact that you do and believe something different from me.
The first level is a cultural norm: in a modern environment, it’s the social equivalent of good table manners. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.
The second level is something more profound, with more risk of leaving us unsettled, cut off from what we were certain about – and more risk of discovering vistas we didn’t know existed. If I allow myself to consider your different way of thinking as not only something I should put up with, but something that could have a grain of truth to it, I have to come face to face with the fact that something I assumed was true…might not be.
That second level of tolerance requires perhaps the deepest type of self-assurance – acceptance that we might not know all the answers, that we might have something to learn from others who are different from ourselves. That we can shift our assumptions, change our perspective, try something fundamentally different, without losing the important stuff of who we are.
I have become convinced that we are in a new economic epoch, and that our cities and towns and places of all types are going to have to come out of the other end of this process fundamentally different than they are now. I think the practical fact is that we as community leaders can either summon our bravery and lead a search for new ways of managing our communities and economies, or we can drag our feet. Either way, the world is changing: the question is whether we work at trying to ride the wave, or pretend we don’t see it — and let it swamp us.
As I’ve said before, neither I nor Richard Florida nor whoever know exactly what that’s going to look like (if someone tells you they do, you can be certain they’re probably wrong). A world that is changing necessitates that we re-examine our assumptions and learn new ways to operate. Just like Dave needs to re-examine how he relates to his kids and do the hard work of learning a new way to do that.
It’s not easy. If it were, we would have done it already. But we can, and we will. We just gotta do it.
Just don’t tell Dave that I ratted on him…. <shhhhhh>