For a long time, I believed it was unfortunate in our culture that we would expect “politics and religion” to be off-limits topics at the holidays or other social gatherings. I felt strongly that we should have instead learned to navigate these kinds of conversations with respect. The last several years, however, have given me a little different perspective. Reality happens to be that beliefs within relationships often differ widely. I have come to believe that we should celebrate any families or groups who have learned the skills to gather without conflict over beliefs, when conflict might otherwise seem inevitable. Avoiding difficult conversations might sometimes seem like a failing, but might we also see it as a success?
For as long as I can remember, I have chosen different spiritual beliefs from many of the people I love the most. As my political beliefs have shifted and strengthened, I have felt distance growing between my views and those of some of my dear friends and family. I am learning how common this experience is, and how painful and confusing it can be. In my younger years, I did not navigate it very well. My priority of “pursuing the truth” seemed to overshadow the importance of maintaining my most valuable relationships. Many more years of growth and experience have helped me to see that.
As individuals who maintain friendships and belong to families, organizations, religious groups and communities, we must learn how to move forward through differences and divisions. We must determine our beliefs and principles, but not only as they relate to political or spiritual concepts. We must look closely at the core of who we are and determine how we value our personal relationships. We may be deeply passionate about our chosen causes and beliefs. It is valuable to be passionate, but it is more important to be compassionate. If there is no room for compassion in our relationships with those who believe differently than we do, we skirt a dangerous line of hypocrisy.
My argument is that we must think of each person in our life as a complex and nuanced person. We must consider their struggles, their interests, their worries and their responsibilities. Disagreement about important ideas does not need to exclude these valuable humans from our consideration for help or care. Let us consider what we share with them. Let us consider where our genuine interest lies. And most importantly, let us act on those conclusions.
Most practically, I would encourage each of us to not see it as a weakness to change the subject. We may never reach agreement or peaceful conversation on the issues that divide us. If we value maintaining a relationship, we do not have to find resolution. We can ask our family, friends or associates about their children, their pets, their employment, their hobbies and their future plans. As we avoid the mistake of defining someone by one part of themselves — perhaps their political beliefs — we will set the stage for deeper understanding of each other as time goes on.
The current social and political climate of division has resulted in many strained relationships and angry words spoken. But there is plenty of time for healing and plenty of time for rebuilding genuine relationships.
If you feel you cannot associate with someone anymore because of their drastically different beliefs, that could be healthy, but it also could be a mistake. If you would mourn the loss of the relationship, consider first trying to rebuild. Without taking that step now, chasms too deep to bridge may develop as time passes.
Ending a long-term relationship based on differences of opinion — no matter how drastic the difference — may seem like the only way forward for you. I believe we should take time to consider what this behavior reflects about our values. Can we truly justify our actions? Maybe we can, and we feel peace ending a relationship that is truly toxic — there are times when cutting ties is indeed necessary. However, many times when we intentionally choose to prioritize relationships over beliefs, we will come to understand how much we can learn and grow together as complex individuals.
Amanda Palmer is a doctoral student at the University of Idaho who was raised in western Washington, transplanted for 11 years to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and is now flourishing among the rolling hills of the Palouse with valued friends and loving family.