Is it worth coexisting with opposing viewpoints?

Whether different approaches serve as foundations of long-term relationships or passing ships is uncertain

lf17-MaryLong

I had been counting the days until Oct. 27 for a long time. It was — of course — the day on which Netflix released “The Center Will Not Hold,” the much-anticipated (by me) biopic on one of my most favorite writers, Joan Didion. I had somehow convinced a whole handful of my housemates to gather in our upstairs living room and watch the documentary together quickly after it was released. We gathered, we watched and, after watching, we discussed.

We found plenty to talk about regarding Didion’s life, her writings and the film at large. But one of the bits we found most interesting was Didion’s relationship with her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Both Didion and Dunne were highly regarded writers of relative fame in their time, but within their social circles, it was well-known that the two had starkly different personalities. They spent hours in their essentially adjoining offices each day, writing away and editing each other’s work and, in so many ways, were undeniably similar creatures. But Didion was known to be stoic, silent and serious in social settings, tight-lipped and always observing. Dunne, on the other hand, was engaging and bombastic, admittedly hot-headed and quick-tempered but also delightfully jovial.

The New York Times Magazine noted in a 1987 article the pair was an “unlikely but inseparable couple.” Theirs was a famous relationship of unsuspectingly successful opposites. After a near-90-minute look into their writerly lives together, my friends and I couldn’t help but beg the question — would you ever want something similar to that? Something — be it a friendship, a relationship, what have you — that was grounded in opposition and somehow succeeded in bringing two seriously dissimilar people together?

That question sprung us into a lengthy conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of spending time with people who think in noticeably different ways than our own individual selves. I mentioned I often found myself being intrigued by people who clearly thought about things so differently than me, as exposure to those different mindsets made me learn more about myself, made me question, strengthen and sometimes step back from my own beliefs and my own viewpoints. One friend agreed that spending time with people of different mindsets could surely teach one life lessons, but, God, wouldn’t it quickly become a bother to spend large quantities of time with a person who was always pushing back against you, always questioning you, always doing things differently than you, always going against your grain? Wouldn’t the frustrations of that situation quickly begin to outweigh the potential rewards?

Another friend mentioned her own parents and shared that while neither was particularly religious, they each had their own distinct religious beliefs that in turn impacted their worldviews. But this, my friend noted, wasn’t too frequently a cause of disagreement.

“Different ways of handling money,” another friend offered. “That’d be a difference that I couldn’t handle. It’s too much stress. You need to agree on the practical things.”

We quickly came to realize that we all had unique ideas of what our deal-breaker differences would be — some of us couldn’t even think of differences that would matter enough for us to list, rattle or write off. But we also pretty quickly came to realize that, generally speaking, we could each move past just about any difference so long as we had already reached a level of respect and admiration for the other.

Understanding, we all agreed, was the crux of moving past any of these listed differences. We didn’t have to agree with a person, so long as we could recognize where they were coming from, recognize the thinking and humanity and well-meaning of that other person. And, moreover, we could disagree so long as we trusted the other to recognize that same personhood in ourselves, in our decision or practice or idea that was standing in opposition to their own.

I had heard something along those same lines several months ago, when I was sitting in a class on international security, of all things, listening to a lecture by someone who will forever stand in history as one of my favorite and most admired professors. She was talking about politics, her decades of experience working in the Pentagon and about today’s undeniably tense, difference-filled political environment. And as students peppered her with questions, curious to hear her thoughts on this issue or that problem in the modern world, she brought every word to a halt. She said that, surely, if she had learned nothing else during her time working on matters of national security and defense for most of her adult life, it was that, “You always have to assume good intent.”

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