A dear friend believes something that I think is absurd — unimaginable in fact. That he could think what he thinks is not just absurd and unimaginable to me, but also distasteful, and profoundly difficult to respect. Complicating the matter in this case is that what he believes is something that I “should” do, that he knows is the “right” action for me to take. This belief presents a great problem for me: how to maintain the friendship and my loving feelings towards someone who genuinely, in every cell of his being, believes something that not only makes no sense to me, but also that I find fundamentally abhorrent.
Boiled down, the conflict between my friend and me is about how we define “right” and “wrong,” and our attachment to our personal “rights” and “wrongs.” We all run into this conflict, frequently. Whether it’s a friend who holds a radically different political belief than us, or one who believes in a moral choice that we consider inhuman, or even something small, when their “best book ever written” is one that we think is utterly infantile. Whatever the current contents of “right” and “wrong,” we are continually having to figure out how to navigate relationships that contain intense dissonance, disagreement, and even disrespect.
What is to be done when our intimate friend or partner holds a belief that we cannot find a place for in our head or heart?
The first thing I decided to do was to convince my friend that he was wrong and that I was right… and I was certain I could do it. After all, sense was on my side. So I gave it the college try, the graduate school try, the saintly try, or whatever try you imagine is most admirable — I gave it that. I was sure that he would come around to sanity, and then I would be able to resolve my conflict with both loving my friend and also (what I consider) his unreasonable belief. But, as is usually the case with this approach — changing the other — it failed. My friend’s belief remains intact, and if anything, strengthened by all my explaining, arguing, and proving.
My next approach was to try and change my own belief so that I could agree with my friend — close the gap between our views, and settle my anxiety about seeing “right” and “wrong” so differently. I tried on his belief from every vantage point: compassion, reason, logic, historical precedent, and everything else I could think of; I really tried to make it make sense to me. But, as is usually the case with this approach — forcing a truth in order to eliminate cognitive dissonance — it failed. I simply could not get myself to believe or even respect my friend’s belief.
For Plan C, I went with the “let it go” approach. In essence, to accept that my friend believes this to be truth, and that it makes no sense to me, and it makes me angry and hurt… and then drop all of it, drop my experience of the situation and move on. Focus on what works in the relationship and let the rest go. But, as is usually the case with this approach — to decide (intellectually) to feel differently than I feel — it failed. Every time I saw my friend (and even when I didn’t) the fact that he thought that I was wrong and he was right made me feel unfairly judged and deeply resentful. And I couldn’t find a way to love and respect him — if he believed this. No matter what I told myself to do, my body felt tight and uncomfortable in his presence, and my heart felt closed. In “letting it go,” I was trying to eradicate the conflict, to create a ‘now’ that didn’t include all of these uncomfortable parts, but that ultimately didn’t exist. Truth was, I didn’t know how to make myself let go of or will away what felt like my actual experience of the situation.
And then I stumbled on an approach that offered some genuine relief. For the first time, I found a space that felt better, and one from which our friendship might be able to continue, even with the discord that it now included. I would call this approach the “letting it be” way. While “letting it be” sounds similar to “letting it go,” it is in fact profoundly different. “Letting it go” is an attempt to change reality while “letting it be” is literally, a letting be of reality the way it is. In this case, accepting that my friend believes what he believes — that this is so, and not something that must or is going to change. When I can let it be, I stop trying to change his belief, change my belief, push his belief out of my consciousness, or push my experience out of my consciousness. I can then allow myself to be present in the relationship and stop demanding that it become something else. While all the same factors are present as before — he still believes something to be right that I think is mad, he still believes that I am doing something fundamentally wrong — and yet, I have stopped fighting the is-ness of it. While theoretically it may feel counter-intuitive to surrender the fight against a ‘now’ that we don’t want, in practice it is in fact a great relief to the body, heart and mind, to literally, let reality be.
So perhaps you are somewhere in this process with a friend or partner, of trying to change, integrate, or find a way to live with an aspect of their belief system, their idea of right and wrong, that you fundamentally reject. And it is not easy process, when we feel so at odds with another’s values — particularly another that we care about deeply. And yet, if we can truly learn to surrender to who the other is, what the other believes — not who we want them to be or what we want them to believe — meet the other as he/she is in reality, and accept the differences between us, then, with that acceptance, that surrender — something in us profoundly relaxes.
From that surrender, that relaxation, the relationship can (sometimes) grow into something more intimate, but always into something more real. And perhaps even more importantly, the practice of “letting it be,” no matter what or whom we apply it to, is really an invitation and permission slip to ourselves — to drop into and be in this very moment, with what it actually contains, and to stop having to reject ‘now’ in the hopes of a different ‘now.’ This is the true gift of “letting it be.”