The easiest way to challenge someone whose words challenge you, challenge your beliefs, your feelings, your identity, is to attack their standing to speak, working to remove the authority of their statements.
As long as all they offer is the abject ravings of a crackpot, revealing their own jealousy, personal twists and internalized fudge, well, they can safely be dismissed, ignored, erased.
Instead of engaging challenge, instead of actually having to understand what you know and believe, to find words and connections that validate and reinforce your thoughts, an attempt to silence others by removing their standing to speak allows comfort to be maintained, the status quo to be enforced.
My history is full of doubt. From as young as I can remember, I had to question everything from my parents “truths” to my own very clear desires. By taking apart the narratives, seeing what was valid and what rationalization, understanding the motives and preconceptions that drove words, I was able to find a basis of truth.
I remember a meeting where, right in front of a customer, another staffer expressed shock that big mouth me wasn’t saying anything. No matter how rude she was, she discovered one of the big secrets of how I look so smart: if I don’t have something I know to be true to say, I keep my mouth shut.
A guy from our ad agency once said to me, “People who talk a lot usually have nothing to say, but I was bored in that meeting, so I actually listened to you. You have a lot of smart things to offer!” Of course, I wanted to can the agency after that, but if you only speak on what you have worked to understand, it’s easy to sound smart.
Being smart is not something everyone admires. Fun bar chats often depend on the absence of an expert, so everyone’s opinion has the same standing and no one can challenge them with pesky, authoritative facts. Facts are a problem, as many in the political system have discovered, so much better to be anti-intellectual so you can wave your arms and spout shite than actually have to engage challenging arguments, working to find common ground and effective compromise.
My history of doubt is a history of sharpening, of clarifying my own understanding. This allows me to suss out the meaning of what others share, put it in context, find connections and identify where growth & healing is required. I can clearly summarize the situation, which, I have found, is often a conversation stopper, as people can’t just continue to bicker.
In other words, my struggle to understand has left me as sounding — and being — rather authoritative. Even when I run up against new facts, new truths, I am able to understand and integrate them into my own worldview quickly, another talent that surprised other staffers.
My smarts don’t come from rote knowing, they come from active doubting, and that continual questioning has always served me in good stead, even if it makes me less than driven.
Having an authoritative voice, though, especially one that doesn’t just parrot doctrine but instead demands sharp thought to cut away the fog, is not something everyone is comfortable with. They would rather diminish my standing, cutting me down so everyone has “an equal voice,” no matter how considered their content is.
Just like any gift, my authoritative voice is both a blessing and a curse, allowing me to see, to help, to be present and also bringing on ad hominem attacks, dismissal & erasure. The quick assumption is that my feelings can be ignored because clearly, my thoughts are enough, an assumption that has caused me pain since I was very small.
If they aren’t ready to doubt their own choices, to examine, to heal and to grow, many turn away from what I offer, more comfortable to just write me off as “one of those people. They prefer comforting, standard, politically correct answers to difficult, sharp, authoritative questions.
I have the sneaking suspicion, though, that it is time to assert my own authority in the world. This is sure to make people try to find ways to dismiss my words, especially fundamentalists who believe that their scripture already has all the correct answers, while I just have the power of smart, informed questions.
Trying to attenuate my voice, cutting it back to be cuter, making people less uncomfortable, has never been a successful strategy for me. Even when I am quiet, a few words and the look in my eye tends to make people feel seen and heard in a way that makes them feel naked. Having my vision has given me compassion beyond judgment for the frailty of humans, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t ready to feel the internalized shame they work so hard to hide, ready to feel rationalizations pierced.
Standing on an authority built on the shifting sands of liminal, bridging, connecting questions may seem a bit queer, at least until you understand that with enough digging you almost always find bedrock. Joseph Campbell reminds me that cross-culturally, human truth has been mirrored the same meaning in many places, many times, that there is such a thing as shared understanding of our continuous common humanity, even if we use very different symbols & metaphors to convey those deep truths.
While I believe in the fight, I don’t believe in battle, in seeing someone or some group as the enemy. What we share is always, always much more important than what seems to divide us. Healing, growth, change and transformation is possible if we hold open the space and ask the powerful questions that help us let go of comforting falsehoods and defensive rationalizations.
I know about the attack. I also know that the only way to transcend it is for people to speak up out of the love which embraces & replaces fear, answering the call for love & connection that lies deep in the soul.
The authority to speak is something I have, if only because I worked so damn hard to discover and claim it.
Now, as before, though, the challenge is to share those lovely questions, the ones which lead us to divine surprises, in the wider world.