WHY DON’T YOU GET ME?

In three consecutive Junes now, I have been privileged to attend the annual Frederick Buechner Spiritual Writers’ Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary across the Delaware.

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The conference is sponsored by the Frederick Buechner Center of Cambridge, MA, which is dedicated to promulgating the works and spirit of one of my favorite authors (and preachers), Frederick Buechner. Members of congregations I have served and Facebook friends have received from me a steady diet of “Buechnerisms”.

Fred himself is almost 92 years old now, and so the trip from Vermont to Princeton is very difficult now, and so he sends us his blessing from afar.  But each year, director Brian Allain gathers a stellar cast of inspiring speakers and workshop leaders to help budding authors hone their craft and navigate the befuddling publishing world.

Older Buechner

One of the keynoters this year was Brian McLaren, one of the most informed, courageous writers about the state of the Christian faith, of all faiths, for that matter, and religious institutions in North America today. The titles of some of his books will give you an idea of the novelty of his ideas: A New Kind of Christianity, Everything Must Change, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? and his latest, The Great Spiritual Migration.

Brian McLaren

In his second address to us, McLaren affirmed that we writers, preachers and teachers are passionate about helping people see the world in a different. Writing, preaching or teaching is an act of love, both for the reader or listener, and the subjects he or she is writing or talking about.   “But, why,” McLaren asked us, “when we writers and preachers and speakers use the best of the tools of our trade and our hard training in an effort to be clear and persuasive, do so many seem not to hear, or even bother to read or listen?” The frustrated writer or speaker asks, “Why don’t you get it?” If they’re writers who put themselves personally on the line, they ask, “Why don’t you get me?” (Don’t parents of teenage children ask that, too?)

McLaren pointed to at least eight psychological biases with which every human being is born and most likely raised that make honest, effective communication very challenging if not well-nigh impossible. These biases, which we all have, at least at the start, are particularly operational in divided societies such as ours today. But the identical biases get in the way of our communication in families, personal relationships and churches. The purpose of education and life experience, of course, is to help us see beyond these innate biases, but they don’t always succeed.

There isn’t enough space to talk about all eight of the elemental biases McLaren named for us, just four in this post. As you read about each one below, ask yourself whether this particular bias within yourself, or among those with whom you want passionately to communicate, has sabotaged your efforts to convey a message or understand it.

In his second address to us, McLaren affirmed that we writers, preachers and teachers are passionate about helping people see the world in a different. Writing, preaching or teaching is an act of love, both for the reader or listener, and the subjects he or she is writing or talking about.   “But, why,” McLaren asked us, “when we writers and preachers and speakers use the best of the tools of our trade and our hard training in an effort to be clear and persuasive, do so many seem not to hear, or even bother to read or listen?” The frustrated writer or speaker asks, “Why don’t you get it?” If they’re writers who put themselves personally on the line, they ask, “Why don’t you get me?” (Don’t parents of teenage children ask that, too?)

McLaren pointed to at least eight psychological biases with which every human being is born and most likely raised that make honest, effective communication very challenging if not well-nigh impossible. These biases, which we all have, at least at the start, are particularly operational in divided societies such as ours today. But the identical biases get in the way of our communication in families, personal relationships and churches. The purpose of education and life experience, of course, is to help us see beyond these innate biases, but they don’t always succeed.

There isn’t enough space to talk about all eight of the elemental biases McLaren named for us, just four in this post. As you read about each one below, ask yourself whether this particular bias within yourself, or among those with whom you want passionately to communicate, has sabotaged your efforts to convey a message or understand it.

  1. The Confirmation Bias: we tend to accept only what confirms what we already know, or believe we know. I, for example, would rather read an editorial and op-ed article in The New York Times than The Wall Street Journal, or prefer to listen to E.J. Dionne instead of Charles Krauthammer. The Times and Dionne allow me to remain cocooned comfortably within my liberal balloon where I have lived since the early 1960s.

"I trust this site to tell the truth."

  1. The Community Bias: It is very unlikely that people will accept an idea, no matter how true or logical, that will make them risk rejection from a community on which they depend. For many years, for instance, at least until seminary, I could not make sense of the fact that a person in a same-gender relationship could possibly be preparing to be a Christian minister. Once I began to meet with and form relationships such people, however, and my mind took even small steps to walk away from its original inflexible traditional viewpoint, I would hear the disapproving voice of my dear pious mother and the pastor of my childhood congregation trying to hold me back.
  2. The Complexity Bias: We prefer a simple solution (even if it’s a lie) to a complex one. The Germany of 1933 was beset by many complex, almost intractable social problems such as runaway inflation, widespread unemployment and profound spiritual malaise. Instead of having the courage to examine the knotty tangled roots of the problems, Adolf Hitler offered a simple solution: the Jews and the communists were to blame. Get rid of them, and Germany would be great again. The German people, for the large part, ate it up.

answers

  1. The Complacency Bias: People will resist calls for action, or even a change of heart, on the plight of marginalized and oppressed peoples because they experience psychic numbness. That is why, for example, I toss straight into the recycling bin most of the newsletters and requests for financial assistance from charitable organizations that have a proven record of making the world a safer, more just place. For one thing, I already support several of them and I have a finite retirement income to protect. But even more importantly, I come home some days psychically exhausted, my well of compassion almost empty, from helping my adopted Congolese refugee family face s seemingly endless stream of challenges in adjusting to a radically different society in a cultural and political environment that they fear is hostile to their even being here.

Of course, readers of my novel Accidental Saviors read the story of Felix Kersten and Algot Niska through the lenses of those and other psychic biases. Several readers have told me, in fact, that they read it in the hope of having some of those innate biases challenged or even removed.

At the same time, it occurs to me that the Confirmation Bias may actually work in the novel’s favor. The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List have undoubtedly given most of us a bias favorable to the suffering of the Jews during World War II in spite of stubborn remnants of anti-Semitism evident yet today. One reader did not publish his review of the book as a courtesy to me, he said, because his review was negative. He felt that I had been too sympathetic towards the villain, Heinrich Himmler, depicting him as a morally confused, though ethically defective, human being rather than as the monster as he is usually portrayed.

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Recognize those biases in yourself? In your readers or listeners? Let me know your reactions and thoughts in the Comments below.

Until the next post, enjoy the bright sunshine, find some shade, and relish the evening breeze.

JAS

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