In the outstanding book Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most, the authors classify three different kinds of difficult conversations. The ‘what happened conversation’ is disagreement about what happened or about what should happen; about who said and did what, and about who’s to blame. By contrast, the ‘feelings conversation’ confronts raw and real emotions. “This is the thanks I get?!” In this conversation we express “I’m angry” or “I’m afraid”. Finally, the ‘identity conversation’ is the most acute. At stake is what kind of person am I dealing with. Is she good or bad, unlovable or worthy of love? Is he a monster?
Our public discourse has devolved in recent years from who’s to blame, to being fraught with fear and anger, to personal disgust for people with whom we can no longer interact. Once upon a time we virulently disagreed about what should happen, but we did so less disagreeably. The injurious Presidential campaign over the past year was saturated with fear, anger, and pain. Now, we find ourselves questioning the core decency of our neighbors. Their essence is in doubt because of the ideological company they keep.
When identity is at stake deeds matter as much as claims do. What people actually do says more about them than what they say. This week’s portion of Torah subtly shows how people change. The Egyptians have gotten the message that Pharaoh is unable to receive. Through the arc of the plagues we note a gradual shift toward recognition that the God acting on behalf of the Children of Israel is indeed God. Following the plague of lice, Pharaoh’s magicians concede, “it is the finger of God” (Ex. 8:15). The plague of hail offers an advanced warning to shelter cattle from harm which many Egyptians heed. Prior to the onslaught of locusts, Pharaoh’s courtiers try to convince him to free the slaves (Ex. 10:7). And prior to the lethal tenth plague we learn, “Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people” (Ex. 11:3). The Egyptians suffer the consequences of Pharaoh’s stubbornness – they too are now referred to as slaves of Pharaoh (Ex. 10:1, 11:3) – so the ritual offering once declared impossible within the land of Egypt can now occur in the form of the Pascal sacrifice.
People change. When that change is for the worst, we often believe it is irrevocable. We look at a former friend and exclaim, “Do I even know you?” Today’s political pestilence is turning neighbors on each other. But it is new. It did not abide a decade ago and that which has always been great about America will keep it from prevailing.
Perhaps if we pay heed less to each other’s associations, affiliations, or apologetics than to what we actually do, we may begin to reclaim some of those shared hopes that once enabled us to strive and struggle less hurtfully.
The remedy may not be in the conversation. It may rather be in the doing. Resist the dangerous. Insist upon the right. Enlist the hopeful. Live the good. And may personal hostility be dispelled by the persuasion of persistent good deeds.