Lent as the beginning of understanding

Lent is less than two weeks away, and I’d like to suggest a practice in place of giving up soda or alcohol or sugar: Why not spend Lent trying to better understand a position different from your own?

Reading to appreciate someone else’s views, even if we disagree, is the beginning of understanding; understanding is the seedbed of compassion, and compassion is the surest way to end division. I could be persuaded to embrace a Lent that produced a less divisive world, especially if all I had to do was read a book.

One of the first philosophers I studied was Aristotle, commonly referred to as the “Father of modern persuasion.” He believed that, for persuasion to be effective, both parties must be open to it. In other words, a person, no matter how firm his or her belief, must enter a discussion open to the possibility that their position may be inferior or faulty. That’s not easy when it comes to strongly held beliefs.

This is one of things I loved about my school days. I studied at a place where many of my peers were more intelligent than I, and the professors were world-class experts. Although painful, it was a cathartic experience to lock horns with someone only to discover their position was more solid than my own. It didn’t feel good to lose a debate, but it always added a clarity of thought that kept me from further logical errors. My humiliation birthed good intellectual fruit that led me to better, more logical conclusions.

Few hold such views today. Whether its rude drivers who break the law only to treat anyone who corrects them with rage, or people of a certain political persuasion who are absolutely certain Jesus is on their side (and, incidentally, really hates people on the other side despite that whole “love your neighbor” thing), we live in a world where people happily divide themselves into camps of similarly minded people, thus closing themselves off from any contrary position. Then, we all, on both sides of different issues, lament how divisive things are.

Many years ago, I made a decision to read any book recommended to me in good faith. As a result, this year alone, I have already finished six books: One by a black, liberal democrat who teaches at Columbia; a conservative Catholic writer of popular self-help books; a progressive Jesuit theologian renowned for his works on prayer; a traditional Catholic spiritual writer; and the most frightening author of all, an Ohio State grad (okay, as a lifelong fan of Notre Dame, I even chose to read an Ohio State author). All jokes aside, I loved the positions I encountered in each, and this is one of the main reasons that I read: It is a nonthreatening way to be exposed to positions that may differ from my own. It allows me a glimpse of how other people see the world. Sometimes, I can see the author’s logical error; other times, I am persuaded that my position needs a bit of revision.

It seems to me that the world would be far better off if more people read books from authors with whom they disagree – if Republicans read books by Democrats, and vice versa; if Jews, Mormons, Catholics and Muslims read books by those from other faiths; if thinkers read books by feelers; if we all just decided to spend a few hours trying to understand how someone else thinks. More often than not, we’d walk away from a particular book disagreeing with the author’s view; but we would nearly always come away with a better understanding of something we had previously dismissed outright.

You pick the area, you know where your heart is most closed to others. Did one of the authors I mentioned above bring about a visceral reaction in you? Pick someone like them. But don’t pick a book hoping to get ammunition you can use against that position; rather, read to really try to understand the author’s viewpoint. It will likely not change your mind; but you may learn something new, and that may help you better understand the author and others like them.