An about face

A man stops by my office, and asks if there is a time next week we could talk.  Sure, I say, but I’m a little curious and apprehensive, as I have no idea what this is all about.  But I stop by their apartment, where he is visibly upset, and my mind races:  What could it be?  Is it their marriage?  Their adult kids?  Are they unhappy with me?  But I stay calm, and we get settled in the family room, and chit chat a bit, and t

hen I ask what’s on his mind.  “Amy,” he says, “I just can’t wrap my mind around this – This vote Maryland just took on same sex marriages.  It just isn’t right, I tell you.  It just isn’t.  I don’t know what to think.  It goes against the Bible.  I am really, really upset.”  And he goes on for awhile, and I just sit and listen.  I can see he is really torn up, and he really is wrestling with what it means to be a person of faith when it comes to this issue, and I am impressed by this.  He’s not someone I would ordinarily think of who wrestles with their faith.  He is older, he has held lower paying jobs, he does not hold a college degree in a congregation where you can’t avoid the PhDs.

But after I’ve listened for awhile, and we’ve chatted for awhile, and his wife has sat quietly by for awhile, I ask him this simple question.  “Well, here’s the dilemma.  Who would you have Jake marry?”  Jake is a transgendered child in our congregation, who transitioned from “Sophie” to “Jake” as a five year old, after the family listened to their child, consulted with experts, researched on the web, and agonized over how to be the best parents they could be to this child God had entrusted to them.  Because this church had baptized this child as an infant, we too had made promises to help this family and this child know the love of God.  So part of what we did was have an educational team come to the church during the Sunday School hour, and talk with us about what it means to be transgendered and to love someone who is transgendered.  

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The couple I was now sitting with had been part of this whole conversation in the church, and his response to my question about Jake brought tears to my eyes.  Here was someone adamantly opposed to same sex marriage, who said, when presented with the future of a small child, said, “It would break my heart to rob Jake of the love and commitment and support I’ve had with my wife.  I can’t imagine depriving that sweet child of such love.  I’m going to have to really think about this.  It just hadn’t occurred to me.  Jake should be allowed to fall in love and marry whoever makes him happy.

What does it take for us to change our minds about such hot-button issues?  Why does a personal connection matter so much?  Because we are social creatures.  Our brains are social brains at the core, in the depths of the wiring.  An issue that stirs up our passions cannot be addressed using the logic of the prefrontal cortex.  Logic never trumps passion.  Never.  But, when you put an issue side by side with a person who is directly affected, then our minds stand a chance of being changed.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in this case it was a cute little kid we’ve known since birth.  But next time you are caught trying to argue someone out of a position that doesn’t make sense to you, you might as well sit back and listen, because rational argument never wins the day.  We just aren’t wired that way.

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6 thoughts on “An about face

  1. Nice Amy, and so timely. This is why all the Presidents (and presidential contenders) now tell lengthy stories during campaigns and State of the Union addresses about those people they met (“Sally in Wisconsin, Jake in California.”) who are deeply affected by some government program. Also why so many conservative politicians with gay and lesbian children seem to go against their party on gay rights issues.

    • O I know! But I also wonder how well it works when it’s done so obviously – Our brains can tell when we’re being manipulated, and they don’t like it one bit! It’s a tricky balance – Between humanizing an issue by talking about real people, and not patronizing your audience……Plus, when it comes to politics, that’s a whole other brain area – Stay tuned for posts on that!

  2. Great post. I think you would enjoy reading (and maybe already have read) Jonathan Haidt’s “the Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion”. He uses the analogy of the rider and the elephant to describe the brain’s decision making process. The elephant is the emotional side, and the rider is the rational. The main function of the rider’s logic is to invent reasons on the fly for why the direction the elephant wants to take is best. Emotion wins.

    • I keep meaning to read The Righteous Mind – Thanks for the reminder! It is fascinating how emotions and thoughts interact, and how we decide, then come up with the reason for the decision, but our brains tell us we came up with the reason first! The more I discover, the more I’m amazed any of us can walk & chew gum at the same time!

  3. In my counseling career, I have led 2 groups: Something Positive for gay men with AIDS and Rebuilding for those in traditional marriages in some stage of divorce. Relationships were the dominant topic in both groups. If gender identifying names are delated, the conversations are identical. I think it is uplifting that the Supreme Court now affirms the equality of relationships.

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