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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Grace of "Okay"

A few years ago, during the annual meeting of The Universal Anglican Church, I suggested to our clergy that one of the greatest tools we might have when confronted with contentious individuals is simply to smile and say, "okay." Okay doesn't mean that we agree, although we might. What it does mean is that we simply don't see the value in pursuing the dialogue. It may be that the other person is just itching for a fight, and there is seldom any benefit in the kind of fight they are looking to have. It
may be that the other person is simply incapable to seeing other perspectives - which is a different thing that agreeing with other perspectives, mind you - and so pursuing the discussion is rather pointless. It may be that we are in a discussion with someone who embraces a fundamentalist mindset. A fundamentalist mindset is similar to, but also distinct from, a fundamentalist religious perspective. A fundamentalist mindset says that there is only one right answer to a particular question. Those of us who have lived longer and kept our mind open have learned that, outside of questions of factual accuracy (though perhaps not even in those situations) very few questions have only one right answer. Except for the most rigid among us, even simple questions such as "what would you like for breakfast?" change from day to day.

I have learned that there is a point beyond which continuing a discussion - or, perhaps more accurately, attempting to initiate or continue genuine dialogue - is fruitless. If all that is likely to arise from ongoing interaction is hostility, continuing is pointless because the only likely outcomes are hurt feelings and animosity on the part of the other person. Unless we have some need to always be right, and if we do we need to take a serious look at that need, it is much better to just walk away. "Okay" allows both of us to save face and perhaps preserves the relationship for another attempt at discussing the issue at hand at a later date.

Of course, there are some discussions and situations in which it would not be right to say, "okay." If someone tells you they are going to set their neighbor's house on fire, you are obligated to disagree and report the conversation both to your neighbor and the proper authorities. Outside of these kinds of situations, however, we will soon discover that the difficulty we have with saying okay - even when we recognize doing so does not constitute agreement - arises in situations that are closest to our sense of identity, especially that part of our identity that makes us special in our own eyes. At those times it is especially important to say okay, and later use the event to ask ourselves why that particular issue is so important to us. The truth is that there is almost always some fear underlying those perceived important issues that needs to be addressed and cleared out so we can move forward in a healthier way - and keep saying "okay!"

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