Twice, recently, I have found myself needing to start over—essentially from scratch—on something I had written. One was a tech talk for work, another my promised post on how we chose a new church after we moved across the country.
Both pieces suffered from an overabundance of combativeness. Or: I was kind of a jerk in the first drafts.
Thinking about them this morning, I noted that in both cases my tendency was to write in a posture that mixed defensiveness with hostility to an existing structure. In both cases, that hostility might actually be well-deserved—but there are times and places for everything, including polemic, and the more I (separately) chewed on both of these pieces, the more I realized that I didn’t want to have an argument. In these cases, at least, I don’t want to punch the views I disagree with, so much as gently nudge them out of the way while showing a more excellent way.
This runs up against one of my deepest-seated tendencies. I am passionate about teaching, about showing a better way, about correcting and fixing ills in the world. I also find a good argument wonderfully sharpening to the way I think—tracing out differences, finding the weaknesses in my own views and either tightening them up or abandoning them as appropriate, understanding other views more clearly… Those are good passions in many ways, but like all good passions they can go awry very easily. In my case, they can lead me to treat everything like an argument, and to go after everything that seems amiss to me with the same kind of knock-it-down-with-a-battering-ram approach.
In the last fifteen years, I have been learning not to verbally hammer at problems (whether in person or in writing). I have slowly learned to listen carefully and try to understand why someone holds the view they do, even when I still think their view is wrong. I have seen firsthand that people’s surface statements and their deepest-held beliefs alike often derive from experiences that are not obvious on the surface. Their struggles are not necessarily apparent. Their histories certainly are not.
I have also slowly learned that a nudge here and a nudge there can often be both more effective and—more importantly—kinder than trying to shove people where I think they ought to be. Even when I’m right about where they ought to be! And my judgments of such things, I have also too-slowly learned, are far less than perfect—which should temper the vigor with which I sally forth to do battle for those judgments.
Make no mistake: there are times for rebuke. There are times to say, “This view you hold [about software development, or Christianity, or financial practices, or whatever else]? It’s dead wrong.” But not all the time. Even though it’s what’s “natural” for me, even though it’s what feels right sometimes.
Sometimes, we have to fight our strongest instincts. No matter how natural something feels, it can be wrong. That is certainly so for me when I get combative about something I’m passionate about. It’s the right response… occasionally. Nearly all of the time, I need to be quieter, gentler, more patient, more understanding, and less interested in winning a fight.