I was in an interesting conversation recently about how we can interact with people who hold different beliefs than ours. The question posed was, “How can one be with someone whose beliefs are the antithesis of our own?” An important inquiry to engage in, considering that a clash of beliefs is at the heart of most conflict and strife between people.
Responses from the group varied from escape (“We can’t be with them at all, so we leave”) and avoidance (“We can’t be with them, so we avoid them”) to pity (“The only way we can be with them is to think how sad it is that they hold their beliefs”), and curiosity and compassion (“We can be with them by observing their thoughts and relating to their essential humanness”). Many in the conversation found it difficult to move beyond pity. And yet, even pity is insufficient to resolve a conflict. For one who pities still sees themselves as being ‘more’ or ‘better’ than those they pity.
When we pity, what remains unspoken is sensed and colors the relationship. I worked for a manager once whom I pitied, and that contributed to increased antagonism between us—for it didn’t create an opening for us to discuss what we shared in common and what we both considered to be our birthright as humans. Basic things, such as:
• Access to education and meaningful work • Freedom of expression • Safe places in which to live, raise children and grow old, and • Access to sufficient resources (food, water, shelter, medical care) to be healthy.
We clung to our beliefs as if they were what we knew to be ‘truth’. Unfortunately, the relationship deteriorated and I chose to leave the organization. I found out years later that she had eventually left shortly thereafter. Neither of us got to have a conversation about what we really cared about, because we were entrenched in our positions about ‘what was so’.
One of my friends once pointed out to me that, for them, beliefs are not knowledge. That seemed to me to be self-evident at the time, but in l my recent conversation about beliefs, I became aware that many confuse their lives by equating beliefs with knowledge. Yet, it seems to me that when we collapse what we hold to be ‘truth’ (our beliefs) onto what we think we ‘know’, we shut down any possibility of anything else being ‘true’. When we cling to what we believe and know as ‘truth’, then we destroy all chances for peace.
According to leaders like the Dalai Lama, true reconciliation (and perhaps the only peaceful way through the world of differences we inhabit) is available to us through wholehearted compassion. When we can see and interact with others as human Beings (as individual souls having human experiences) instead of as a maelstrom of beliefs, then perhaps we can begin to live together peacefully. I’m certainly not advocating that we condone behaviors and actions that destroy life in any way. However, setting ourselves up as better than another because of what we believe is a covert form of resisting their beliefs.
Perhaps what underlies our difficulties as a species is a belief that it is not possible to fulfill everyone’s birthright to the basic elements of life. This type of thinking contributes to our disagreements over resources and rights and creates the so-called battle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
What if … we individually and collectively choose another belief?
What if … we see the world as being sufficient for all our needs—as long as we respect each other and the planet?
What if … we see it as our responsibility to each other and to future generations to base all our actions in this belief?
What if … we focus on collaborating instead of resisting each other?
Perhaps we could develop a whole new set of beliefs from this—beliefs that support and serve our collective future and the future of our world.