Making Friends Who Disagree With You (is the healthiest thing in the world)

I did not expect this to be the most life-changing part of my semester in Washington DC.

When I first left, I thought the biggest impact would be academic–the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Museum volunteering.  Either that, or my health would improve with the balance and space.  Or maybe I would meet a tall, dark, handsome American man and run away to Hawaii with a green card.

Not quite.

There was an academic impact, of course. A huge one.  And, yes, my spiritual, emotional and physical health is in decent form.  I am also currently acquainted with many tall/dark/handsome American menfolk (‘sup, gents?), though I certainly won’t be marrying into a green card anytime soon.

But none of these things are at the top of my report back to Canada.  Instead, I have been pouring out stories and joy regarding one overwhelming, unexpected gift: While in DC, I became close, close friends with people who I disagree with on almost everything.

gray-area

Keep in mind, these weren’t just any people with differing opinions. These were people I genuinely liked.  A lot.  They were funny, smart, and kind.  We all really liked music.  We tried new foods, watched interesting documentaries, and reacted to the news. We even lived together.  We ate dinner together, every single night.

So I couldn’t look down on them. I couldn’t even consider it.  And when you can’t look down on someone who fundamentally disagrees with you, when you’re busy breaking bread, sharing your days, laughing about the weather…well.

Welcome to the most profound living situation I have ever had.

I met my first Bible Belt Republican friend soon after moving to DC.  We were watching TV.  She had an awesome Southern accent.  At first, we chatted politely about football, and cheese dip, and New York City–safe topics.

“So, what’s it like in Mississippi?” I asked.

“Well, you know, I’m from a small town, so we all get around in horses and buggies…”

“Really?!”

“….no.” She laughed. I gritted my teeth and swallowed embarrassment. Yikes.  “What about Canada? Aren’t y’all, like, socialist?”

I laughed. She laughed. And just like that, any walls between us tumbled down.

She was fascinated, in every sense of the word, when I mentioned I was pro-choice.  (I know, I know.  When you first meet a self-proclaimed Conservative from Mississippi, talking about abortion is dangerous business. But we went there.)  She wanted to know more. Her curiosity fueled my curiosity, and we talked. We didn’t argue–we debated gently, very gently, but we never argued. We laughed at nuance, we self-deprecated, we trusted each other. And we liked each other. Before the conversation, and after the conversation.

To recap: Left-wing Canadian meets Bible Belt Republican. Discusses controversial political issues for over an hour. Walks away with a new friend.

We’re still friends.  We grabbed coffee before I left town, and we chatted away about personal things, travel, jobs…and, you know, marriage equality. We had both attended a rally on the subject earlier that month.  I had been a participant; She was working as a Conservative news journalist. We drained our drinks, played with ideas, and moved on to discussing our hometowns.

I miss her. I do.

More than that, though, I miss the girls I saw every. single. day.  I lived at a downtown Christian Woman’s Home.  The residence housed many girls with Bible College backgrounds, Conservative upbringings, Heritage Foundation affiliations, Baptist church memberships, and/or a “Raised Republican” shirt.

If you had told me 6 months ago that seeing this would make me smile, because it meant I had a good friend next to me, I would not have believed you.
If you had told me 6 months ago that seeing this would make me smile and remind me of a good friend, I would not have believed you.

They questioned me constantly. And I questioned them. Gun control, birth control, abortion (that one took three hours), pornography, drug laws, marriage equality, feminism, and a whole lotta theology. We really never knew what the other person believed, so we could never make assumptions. Our backgrounds were just too different.  In almost every conversation, I had to assume the person I was talking to disagreed with me.  And in almost every conversation, I was hungry to find out why.

This might sound frustrating, but it wasn’t frustrating with them. It was fun. It was loving and accountable and we laughed a lot.

What it came down to was this: We questioned each others’ perceptions and ideas, but we never questioned each others’ integrity.  We debated (gently, gently), but we never sought to change the other person’s mind.

Even finding out that this was possible changed my life.

It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of talking to people who agree with you, and carelessly demeaning those who don’t.  But the problem with people who share a similar perspective is that they can assume that you agree with them on everything. So you start to. You pat each other on the back, you make assumptions, you submit to ideologies.

I know I’ve been guilty of this.

In DC, things got more interesting.  Things got more grey.  We could bend and defend where needed; we built compassion, we got offended, we saw irony. These are all important things, I promise.

Here’s a great TED Talk that discusses the “filter bubbles” keeping us from diverse opinions online:

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When I first saw this video, it didn’t bother me much. But that was before DC.  Now, it scares me pretty desperately. Diverse opinions matter.  Understanding where people are coming from matters.

We care a lot about “Freedom of Speech,” which is great, but it’s easy to forget that with Freedom of Speech comes the Freedom to Listen.

We have the freedom to choose who and what we expose ourselves to.  It really is up to us. If we want, we can only hang out with people who echo our own sentiments. We can read only one column, we can confine ourselves to a clearly biased news network, we can spit on people protesting something with which we disagree. We can restrict our friendships to our own parties or churches.

But man, that seems like an awful waste of our Freedom to Listen. Just like only talking with people “on your side” of an issue is an awful waste of your Freedom of Speech.

We may not have time to give everyone a soapbox second.  And perhaps we should hold fundamental values. But we should also always have time for friendship, for talking to people, for humanizing those outside of our own bubble. And we should always be willing to disagree, learn…and to laugh about it.

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11 thoughts on “Making Friends Who Disagree With You (is the healthiest thing in the world)

  1. If i could set up an “auto-comment” feature for your posts it would say: AWESOME. SO AWESOME. You’ve done it again; you’ve made me think.

  2. I’m so happy for you – once I discovered those who I could share experiences with like you described above, I really started looking at my ‘circle’ and decided I needed to make some changes – life is so absolutely wonderful when you have those you can explore and expand horizons with that still like you for who and what you are -don’t expect to convert you or feel like they have to buy into your perceptions.
    🙂

  3. I so love reading your posts. You think and write with such introspection, such examination and awareness. I really loved the TED talk you linked to, and I plan to share this like crazy, because I think you are right, the talk was right, and this is a critically important topic. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to realize it.

  4. Reblogged this on The Therapy Journals of the Fat-Headed Klingon Woman and commented:
    Hello all! I am sharing this because I think it is true and correct and extremely important in this world where suddenly disagreement = hate and dissention = judgment and the way people form their world views is limited to listening only to those who agree with them. This woman is so worth reading! I have a lot of other things on my mind, but for now, enjoy!
    Until next time,
    D.

  5. I can relate to this too, like with my friend who has a very different personality to me, although I don’t always get on with her she does give me an idea of how many people in the world not like me may think and also challenges my own views.

    Although I wouldn’t say we are particularily good friends since I feel to distant from her to relate to her.

    1. I think that’s a good point as well–I certainly was most able to come together with these girls in the end because of our similarities, rather than our differences. Because we had similar senses of humour, educational interests, and faith bases, we were able to build a connection where discussing controversial topics felt safe. I imagine that without these things in common, we would not have been able to connect as well.

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