Man sitting alone thinking

4 Factors in Preparing for Holiday Conflict

Unavoidable Conflict

The notion that the holidays serve as little more than emblems of family dysfunction is now a cliche, fodder for countless jokes, movies, and television shows. From National Lampoon’s A Christmas Vacation to The Ref, the modern take on the holiday season is decidedly cynical. 

These scenarios wouldn’t resonate so deeply if they didn’t have their basis in reality. Most of us know all too well how a simple flash of the eyes, or one ill-timed remark can transform a dinner table into a warzone in a matter of seconds. Adding to the tension these days, though, is the assumption that serious disagreement necessarily spells the end of a relationship. If compromise on serious matters is out of the question, however, it would seem that we cannot live with our deepest differences. We’ve all seen this dynamic play out when the radioactive subjects of religion, sex, and politics come up as we’re passing the mashed potatoes. But is this really true? Is it not possible to disagree on serious (even essential) issues and still remain friends? Is serious disagreement truly incompatible with friendship? 

In anticipation of the squabbles that will inevitably rear their ugly heads in our homes this Christmas season, I’d like to offer a basic schematic in the hope of putting these conflicts into perspective. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s break human ways of looking at the world into four categories: opinions, ideas, beliefs, and core convictions. By examining each of these, we’ll be able to take a more holistic look at our interactions. 

As with physical anatomy, these parts are distinguishable, but inseparable, with each interpenetrating the other. Though all play an integral role in a given personality, each category increases in depth, moving us further and further into the human personality. Thus opinions pertain to matters of taste; ideas play out in the life of the mind, giving rise to thoughts; beliefs combine thought with action; core convictions constitute a person’s fundamental commitments and deepest intuitions. Because core convictions go to a person’s very heart, they cannot be changed without changing the person themselves. A change of opinion or ideas can bring its share of personal upheaval, but a change of core convictions never leaves an identity untransformed. Persuading someone that G.K. Chesterton is right about the culinary revelation of Stilton Cheese is one thing, but convincing someone to reconsider their views on sexual ethics is tantamount to asking them to change who they are. Generally speaking, most of the issues that divide us (religion, sex, politics) touch on a person’s core convictions. This doesn’t mean that we avoid these subjects, of course, but it does mean that we need to navigate them with care and sensitivity.   

One important caveat: this breakdown is meant to function mainly as a heuristic device to stimulate thinking about our interactions during times of serious disagreement. It goes without saying that the complexity of human vision exceeds these four neat categories. It is my hope, however, that they will impart a measure of understanding for those difficult conversations that unfold in our kitchens and living rooms this Advent season. That said, let’s take a closer look at each category. 

4 Factors to Consider In Our Interactions

Opinions: To say that opinions are largely matters of taste should not mislead us into thinking of them as inconsequential. The human personality, with its mad flurry of intuitions, gifts, quirks, and habits, constitutes the ambient background of opinions. We’re beginning with them not because of their superficiality or insignificance, but because of their relative flexibility. That is, they can be changed without drastically altering a person’s character. Imagine you have a friend who’s a true cineaste, as my friend, Dr. Kenneth Boa, happens to be. Let’s say Dr. Boa and you share an enthusiasm for the work of Alfred Hitchcock. While the general critical consensus is that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Dr. Boa thinks that honor should go to Shadow of a Doubt. If Dr. Boa manages to persuade me of the superiority of his choice (unlikely), I remain largely unchanged in the deepest sense. I’ve modified a particular point of taste, but not my very identity. It goes without saying that if Dr. Boa tried to change my opinion by attacking Vertigo, the likely success of his project would be slim indeed. As a general rule, opinions can’t be changed through attacks. If we want to change someone’s opinion, we need to aim at persuasion. 

Ideas: Ideas are largely theoretical in the sense that their abstract nature means they haven’t necessarily collided with the hard walls of reality. I have a friend who works for a large engineering company and he frequently faces a challenge when he deals with the people who design the machinery for his factory floors. The discrepancy between the designer’s ideal setting for the machinery and the actual conditions on the factory floor is often rather pronounced. The solution is to have the designer leave the “ivory tower” of her office and take a tour of the facilities to ensure that realism beats out idealism.  

Their abstract nature notwithstanding, ideas still retain a higher degree of inflexibility than do opinions. The designer I mentioned above may have an ideal setting in mind, but personal taste alone can’t dictate the construction of industrial machinery. A rigid set of rules must be followed. Ideas may be idealistic, but changing them still requires a readjustment of how a person thinks the world works. Think of the starry-eyed college student who leaves the world of urban social theory to face the harsh realities of being a teacher in an inner-city school. When it comes to the world of ideas, theory must be balanced with practice. It’s the reason medical students are required to complete a residency. Similarly, if we want to challenge people’s ideas, we need to balance theory with practice, and do our best to show that the idea we’re critiquing fails to make full contact with reality. Once again, if persuasion is the goal, we want to pursue the conversation in a respectful manner, taking into account that a change in ideas is tantamount to a change in one’s view of how the world works. I’ll sneak in a quick plug for great stories here. Though this hardly exhausts the joys of reading a fine novel, skillful writers balance theory with practice by putting flesh and bones on ideas and marching them into the world. A treatise on the dangers of revolutionary politics may bury its urgency in heavily conceptual language, but Dostoevsky’s searing vision of it in The Possessed offers a holistic account that’s as vivid as it is appalling. If you want to become a skillful interlocutor, read great novels.   

Beliefs: Beliefs are ideas you’re prepared to act on. Let’s say you visit your doctor because you’ve been experiencing chest pain. After some routine tests, he writes you a prescription. If you don’t take the medication, there’s a strong chance you don’t believe the man. From car mechanics to plumbers, from pastors to counselors, our lives are awash with all kinds of ideas, but it’s our actions that tell us what we actually believe. 

Our beliefs will often surprise us. When asked the question, “What’s something true that you don’t believe,” the novelist Adam Roberts shrewdly replied, “That I’m going to die.” It might sound like a complete departure from reality, but if you look at our daily habits, you’ll find that many of us proceed as though death only happens to other people. Belief is highly complex and constitutes a rich field of academic inquiry. Broadly speaking, in our cultural moment, we have difficulty trusting outside voices. Much to the chagrin of practicing physicians, many people prefer the impersonal computations of WebMD to the actual care of a doctor. Making matters more complex is the fact that many of us prefer to customize our “facts,” carefully curating our experience of reality to fit our views. Once again, this habit points back to a penchant to trust ourselves alone and to seek to align our beliefs with personal preferences, rather than the nature of reality. Changing a belief involves a change to the shape of a life, so it’s no small feat. If we’re aiming at persuasion here, the main challenge will involve gently combating a consumerist mindset on the nature of reality. Convincing someone that personal preference ought to not dictate our worldview is a daunting task, one that will require prayer, patience, and creativity. 

Core Convictions: Core convictions are intimately tied to the human personality and flow from a person’s peculiar disposition. Core convictions register first as a powerful feeling. Think of expressions like “go with your gut,” or “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It’s important to stress that feeling is not a derogatory word meant to communicate a buoyant detachment from reality. Rather, the unique set of talents and skills that each of us exhibit predispose us toward certain reactions and modes of engagement. In this sense, some of us have a natural feel for justice, a natural feel for unity and order, a natural feel for beauty and wholeness, and a natural feel for religious devotion. If we dressed up each of these sensibilities as a basic type, we could call the four characters the Judge, the Scientist, the Artist, and the Priest. 

A more poetic illustration would be the aeolian harp. Named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind, this is a stringed instrument that’s “played” by the wind. A wind chime would be its modern descendant. The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Colerdige offers an expansive, if somewhat pantheistic, picture of the instrument:

And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic Harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Running with Coleridge’s metaphor, we might think of human beings as “organic Harps” played by life’s “breeze.” The picture offers a fascinating intersection of passive and active elements. Like an aeolian harp, each of our personalities is a unique configuration, and though each of us is subject to life’s same breeze, said breeze rings unique notes from each of us. Think of your core convictions as those singular notes. 

Given the fact that core convictions have their basis in a person’s very heart, changing them will require nothing less than a change of heart. It’s important here to discern pure motivations and what we take to be misguided assumptions. Imagine you have a friend who has a natural feel for justice (the Judge in our scheme) and is deeply committed to the humane treatment of others, especially those on the margins. Let’s say this person also believes that human sexuality is fluid and devoid of any intrinsic purpose or design. Consequently, they view traditional limitations on sexual expression as harmful. Obviously, engaging this person on such a topic can be intimidating, but it’s possible to affirm a commitment to the humane treatment of every person regardless of their sexual orientation, while maintaining that human sexuality has an author and therefore a proper mode of expression. Once again, if we hope to try and persuade someone to change their lives, we must operate with care, respect, and sensitivity. After all, trying to convince someone to change who they are is a radical request. 

Being All Things to All People

In I Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul writes, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 

When we take into account the inner motivations of a person’s views, we put into practice Paul’s habit of becoming all things to all people. Such a strategy refuses our cultural moment’s trademark tactics of manipulation, coercion, scapegoating, and vilification. By examining opinions, ideas, beliefs, and core convictions, my hope has been to provide some practical purchase for disagreeing well with others, especially those closest to us. May our Lord grant us the grace to be all things to all people, even when they’re glaring at us across the table.

Suggested Reading: Eternal Perspective Trilogy

4 Factors in Preparing for Holiday Conflict

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