I believe in vigorous debate. I don’t remember when or how it became a family tradition, but growing up in my house always meant bringing your ideas, opinions, and beliefs to the dinner table so that their very foundations might be challenged.
I am the third of four boys, and while my brothers and I were all made to attend church in our youth, there was never any pressure placed on us to adhere to any part of Christianity, or any other belief system. However, if I disagreed with something, I learned that I better be able to explain why. Sometimes it was as if I were the parent and my father the child, asking “Why? … Yes, but why?” It was never enough to let a proclamation rest on its boldness alone. It was also never an issue as to whom I brought with me to dinner – Marx, Buddha, Quinn– but my reasons for extending the invitations were required.
I would listen to my older brothers exchange ideas with my parents with restrained passion, defend their statements as if the state of the union depended upon some kind of immediate resolution, and then challenge the others to offer a more reasonable solution. This last request was usually a poorly masked attempt to pull a piece of experiential wisdom out of one of my parents without revealing any hints of uncertainty about their own position. I would try and mimic, poorly at first, all of these behaviors, desperate to join in on the mental exercise, though it was more than just an exercise in intellectual stimulation. It was a place where our family could make up ground for the times when we were not so warm or affectionate. We could laugh at one another and understand the love behind all of the conflicting opinions. I found acceptance and approval inside questions of doubt and statements of disbelief. And, it was during those dinnertime debates that I learned some important lessons.
When I was too young to understand the dynamics of our family debates but not too young to enter into them with a daring new belief, I found that I could easily allow for my feelings to be hurt. This sometimes resulted in my leaving the table huffing and puffing about how “no one listened.” In reality, I was just disappointed that I could not command unanimous approval of my 13-year old belief that, “eating any dairy product is just as bad as eating meat, which is the equivalent to murder.”
I am still no master of debate, and my anxiousness sometimes results in a stuttering, jumbling of vocabulary in an overly-aggressive tone spilling out into otherwise gentle conversation. However, the need for sincere, vigorous debate remains a belief that I will defend with anyone willing to listen. Life is not about demanding attention or expecting approval of one’s beliefs and opinions, regardless of their validity. We question others’ opinions to refine our own and inch closer to an understanding.
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