Editor's Note

This is the fourth of ten posts about discussing strong disagreements. See the series summary, with links to published posts here.


If I could get rid of only one big discussion mistake instantly, I’d pick this. I’ve seen this mistake cause so much well-intentioned damage and prevent so many feared benefits that I’m just fed up. We need to stop.

We need to stop mixing up who we are with what we think, and who others are with what they think. We aren’t our ideas.

Thinking that we are our ideas - or acting as if we are our ideas - is one of the most efficient ways to transform a discussion into a debate or fight. It guarantees failure of discussion.

Here’s the thing: if you are your ideas and if your ideas are in opposition with those of someone you love, then you are in opposition with the person you love. You yourself are pitted against them themselves. In those circumstances, you can’t discuss, because discussion means seeking truth together. How can you be together if you, yourselves, are opposed?

Instead, we need to understand that we own our ideas. They aren’t you, they’re yours. You possess them, and as your mental property, they either benefit or harm you. They come and go. You find the harmful ones and chuck them, you find the beneficial ones and build on them. You are the one doing that. You aren’t being chucked or built on because you aren’t your ideas. You’re the chucker and the builder. Maybe you are (in some sense) your mind, but you certainly aren’t your ideas.

If we were our ideas, we’d change every time our minds changed. You’d not even possibly be the same person as the child in your history. Those photos on your dad’s shelf wouldn’t be of you, but of someone else. More presently, if this article did its job, I would create a whole new batch of people, by changing your minds about a topic.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am that powerful. I don’t think I can make me a different me, much less make you a different you. I need to be me before I can do any making, and I don’t have that kind of power over you. I’m neither my maker nor anyone’s. Luckily, you aren’t either. Phew.

Now, it’s certainly easy to make the mistake. So often we are evaluated, accepted, or rejected based on our ideas. In professional and educational circles, or in intellectually indulgent internet forums, we’re mocked or promoted or demoted or graded or accepted based on the content of our minds. And mockery, acceptance, approval, and rejection are things that point past whatever we own, right at us. We ourselves seek approval and acceptance. We ourselves fear rejection and mockery. So, when our ideas become the causes of other’s approval or rejection, we can mess up, deciding that our ideas are what we are.

It’s a kind of shortcut, thinking that people are their ideas. It allows us to skip the bright hard work called love, and merely evaluate their thoughts. We like shortcuts. We’re tired. It’s a relief. It’s also an injustice.

So if we want to make progress discussing strong disagreements with people we love, however long it takes - with parents or children or siblings or spouses or old friends - we must do whatever we can to avoid the big mistake. We must not think that we are our ideas, or that the people we love are their ideas. Rather, we must commit ourselves to one another, and commit to working together on the ideas we each own, to help each other see whether we own true things.

Recognizing that our false ideas harm us, and that we often don’t know which of our ideas are harmful and which are beneficial, we must submit our ideas to the people with whom we discuss, not for the sake of sharing or affirmation or tolerance, but so that we can really work together to discern their truth or falsehood.

When we discuss we’re together. When we’re together, we share our resources - the things we own. We own our ideas, so in discussions, we’ll share them. It’s simple, though difficult.

Here are ways to recognize whether you believe that you are your ideas.

If you are personally offended when someone disagrees with you, then you think you are your ideas.

If you feel attacked when someone rationally critiques your thoughts, you think you are your ideas.

If you are afraid of rational criticism, you think you are your ideas.

If agreement is more important to you than faithfulness, you think you are your ideas.

If faithfulness means the same thing as agreement to you, you think you are your ideas.

If disagreement means disassociation to you, you think you are your ideas.

If you’re afraid to change your mind when you hear a good argument against your thoughts, you think you are your ideas.

If a change in someone’s thought deprives you of an ability to love them, you think that they are their ideas.

If you firmly expect others to keep thinking the things they think right now, you think they are their ideas.

If you firmly expect to keep thinking the things you think right now, you think you are your ideas.


Instead, set guards around your mind. Tell them to kick out the belief that you are your ideas. Don’t worry: when they kick it out, you’ll still be you. It’s just an idea. It isn’t you. Though ideas have consequences, they aren’t us, and we aren’t them. Seek to find out whether they help or harm you, and whether they help or harm the people you love, but remember: they’re just ideas.

And remember: the goal of agreement about truth with the people you love is so beautiful and good, that it’s worth great efforts. It will probably be hard to remember you aren’t your ideas as you go - and harder to act in accordance with that belief - but it’s worth it. By means of it, you’ll be free to discuss, and by discussion, you can arrive at truth, holding hands.


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