Are You Sure You Are Right?

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Recently I heard from someone who trains lawyers in how to evaluate potential jurors that a key question for attorneys to ask prospective jurors is “Do you have any bumper stickers on your car?” If the individual answers in the affirmative, then according to this procedure, that is reason enough to reject that individual as a juror. The presumption is that such an individual is not amenable to having his or her mind changed by reasonable arguments. At first I found this curious and even amusing, but the more I reflected on it, the more I thought that it might make sense.

Certainly during the last presidential election and the more recent Congressional elections there were many bumper stickers that I found to be clever and pithy. Some evoked in me a feeling of self-righteousness, while others sent me into a complex of anger or disdain. Ludicrously, I found myself dismissing the driver as a fool or ignoramus, or praising him as an enlightened individual, depending on the phrase printed on a 12 inch sticker on the back of her car.

When I was growing up, my Dad refused to allow us to put a bumper sticker of any type on his car. During the presidential election of 1964, my brother and I begged him to let us put the bumper sticker of our favorite candidate on his red Buick Riviera. I remember him gently laughing at our stubborn self-assurance. We were absolutely sure that our man was the right person for the presidency, and we could not understand why he did not want to advertise this to the world.

Today I am older than my Dad was in 1964, and I am grateful to have inherited some of his wisdom. I think I understand why he said “no” to bumper stickers. In the last two elections I certainly knew who I was voting for and why. I was, in fact, passionate about my choices. Yet, every time I thought about putting a bumper sticker on my car — especially the kind designed to put the other guy in his place — I hesitated. I thought of friends who I knew held seemingly opposite views to mine, and it occurred to me that putting a bumper sticker on my car might be a way of shutting down dialogue with these friends. If these folks whom I loved and respected held opposing views to mine, perhaps neither one of us had a monopoly on the truth. More than likely the truth was somewhere in the middle.

Both Jesus and the Buddha spoke of the middle way. By this they did not mean some ineffective and safe middle ground. What the middle way requires of us is much more demanding. It asks us to live in the tension of the opposites. It urges us to move out of the security of absolute certainty and into the more turbulent seas of wondering what if — what if the truth I so passionately believe in is only partial? It invites me to move from either/or thinking into both/and thinking. One thing I am pretty sure of is that the middle way is far too complex to fit on a twelve inch bumper sticker, just as it also cannot be conveyed in a 30 second sound bite. The middle way requires listening to the other, especially when we might assume there is nothing we could possibly learn from the other.

The December 2 New York Times contained a story that provides a good example of living the middle way. It is entitled “The House that a Hope for Peace Built” about “Muslim and Jewish women, with an atheist, a Buddhist and an agnostic included for good measure,” who live together in the Mid-East Coexistence House at Rutgers University. Their goal was to see if they could “live together, quarrel, and with luck, [to] laugh and try to understand one another.” The long term result of their experiment remains to be seen, but what they are discovering is the truth of the advice given to one girl by her father who is a rabbi: “he always learned the most by just sitting around with a group of people drinking tea.” So the next time I am sure that I am right, I think I’ll brew a pot of tea and see if I can get someone to share both the tea and their point of view with me. It won’t be as quick as the few seconds it takes to read a bumper sticker, but it offers the opportunity for self-awareness and the potential for right relationship.