When Danielle Rowaan asked me to write a post for Do Justice I thought it would be easy, because I could just do my regular principled pluralism and convicted civility shtick. Then I thought, no … that’s old hat for folks in the Christian Reformed Church. They know Rich Mouw, and he does a better job with all that than I ever could.
Next, I thought I could write something based on my experiences as a small-time anti-apartheid activist in my birth country, South Africa. But as I reflected on my conversations during the late 1980s I realized that back then I only talked — really, honestly talked — with people who agreed with me. So all that remained of that idea was the title of this post, which comes from something Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.”
Then I thought I could write about what I am learning from my friend Irshad Manji, whose example has made me wonder if my irenic manner is not perhaps mere timidity in the face of disagreement. “Offense is the cost of honest diversity,” writes Irshad. “Role-model how destructive disagreement can be turned into constructive conflict.”
But as I considered how to convey how Irshad models constructive conflict I realized that I don’t want to write out of someone else’s experience.
And so my thoughts turned to that time I thought I was going to die. Last summer my hematologist told me that I had chronic myeloid leukemia, and that I should prepare to be dead within a handful of years. Eventually, it turned out that the diagnosis was mistaken, but for something like four months, I believed it to be true. Being the way I am, my first response to the bad news was to buy a book: Ira Byock’s Dying Well. Among the things that have stayed with me from Dying Well is Dr. Byock’s observation that people who are dying need to be able to say five things to the people who matter to them: I forgive you; Forgive me; Thank you; I love you; Goodbye.
One of the most troubling realities of my life has been my deep differences with some of the people I love most. When it comes to some of what I feel with the most intensity, believe with the strongest conviction, care about most deeply, I have had to accept that these beloved ones are not going to change — and neither am I. At the same time, I will never love them less, nor they me. I have come to believe that conversations with these people about our deep differences are among my most important conversations.
It is without doubt important that we have conversations marked by convicted civility with strangers: people whom we know only at a distance, and whose worlds are for the greater part foreign to ours. But exactly the distance between our lived worlds makes both courtesy and rudeness relatively easy in such conversations. The relational and emotional costs either way are relatively slight. We can talk, and then we can walk away.
It is also without doubt important that we have conversations marked by convicted civility with neighbors: people whose lives brush up against ours in the street and the corner store and the town hall and on the sports field. These are not lives from which we can walk away: they’ll still be there next week and next month and next year and perhaps a generation from now, and even if just for survival we are obliged to figure out how to live together without accumulating grudges and escalating conflicts.
But then there are the people with whose lives ours are deeply and inextricably entangled. The people who, regardless of anything, we will always love, even when we disagree about what matters most to us. Our parents, our siblings, those primal friends with whom we enjoy and endure a “long sisterhood,” the people alongside whom we have celebrated sacraments over long decades … how do we talk with these people when we disagree, thoroughly, about things that really, really matter, and on which we know some of us will not, ever, change or agree? Civility does not quite cut it in these circumstances. And so we are brought to the place where we have to say the most important words…
Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
And if we’re lucky (and yes, I know you Christian Reformed folks don’t believe in luck), maybe it turns out the terminal diagnosis is a mistake, and we don’t quite yet have to say goodbye.
This post is part of Do Justice's How to Stay in Conversation with "the Other Side" series. To make sure that you see all these posts, subscribe to our biweekly Do Justice digest.