Many years ago I bought a new computer — a 386SX-16running MS-Dos5, with a user interface called GeoWorks that had client software for this upstart on-line service that thought some day it could challenge the big-boys (Compuserve and GEnie) called America On-line. It had a free trial number of hours, and I looked around and around (it was a long-distance call to the only access number in my area, and things didn’t move fast on my 2400 baud modem), and, at the very end, I found a listing for Hatrack River Town Meeting, which rung bells from a book I had just bought by Orson Scott Card — there was a little blurb at the end of the book. So I went there, and met Scott and a bunch of people. After a while I was invited to come to a private area called Nauvoo, and there I met Robert Woolley. He was one of the more insightful folks in that space, but it was pretty low-key and happy for the most part.
Fall of 93, I got access to the internet, and discovered e-mail lists, among them one called LDS-Net (aka “Internet First Ward”), and one of the people there was Bob Woolley. I was, at this point, a very opinionated guy (I know that’s hard to believe) arguing for a very traditional by-the-manual approach to Mormonism from a position of ignorance in my first real contact with liberal/progressive/Sunstone/Dialogue Mormons. I was a mess. I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I didn’t even know that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had my testimony, and I wanted to believe that Church leaders had never really got anything significantly wrong, and that, basically, nothing important had changed from the time Joseph walked out of the Grove.
Well, Bob took some serious time to spank the Hell out of me when I said something really stupid and wrong. He wasn’t alone. I met a bunch of people that I didn’t even know enough to know what kind of rock stars they were in the liberal/progressive/Sunstone/Dialogue community like Greg Prince, Jeff Needle, the Schindler brothers, Kevin Barney, etc.. And I also met some hard-core conservative Mormons like Red Davis and Jon Redelfs, and got to see both sides of a number of issues in Mormonism that I hadn’t really thought through. They all gave me way more to think about than I deserved for my little contribution, but I learned a lot about learning in an environment where views get to butt into each other.
And then, after a few years, and other mail lists like Morm-hist and Scripture-L, Bob Woolley contacted me off-list to let me know that I had posted something to whichever list that he could find nothing with which to argue, and he wanted me to know that. He did that a few more times after that (and I did a few in response). It was quite a sign of how much I had learned that Bob and I were close enough in our thinking at this point.
I left those mail lists after a time because of lack of time, and I lost track of Bob, and haven’t found anybody who knows how he’s doing or where he’s at. I’m not sure he’s still alive. But I think of him often and the debt I owe him that I can’t repay. So I do what I can to pay it forward (even though I find that phrase trite) by giving to others what he gave to me — an opportunity to step back and look at their assumptions, understanding and reasoning, perhaps with additional information they didn’t already know, so they can see if what they’re thinking really works or not. My style isn’t gentle, because gentle leaves wiggle-room for sloppy thinking, and that’s no favor. God chastens who he loves as well, from what I can figure out, and I think I understand some of why.
Bringing your ideas out of your head and placing them in front of other people is a gift, and an act of courage. It takes courage because, when you say something, people will say things back. They will know different things, and see things differently, and they will challenge you and your thinking. Sometimes they won’t be gentle (that would be me). But it’s not necessarily a lack of caring behind that lack of gentleness, and disagreement doesn’t mean you’re entirely wrong or stupid. You’re neither. But you’re not entirely right or more brilliant than everybody else either. You’re just like the rest of us — owner of a finite, unique and limited perspective. Just like the rest of us, you are a blind man facing an elephant. You can describe the part that only you can reach better than anybody else, and leaving your voice out deprives us of knowledge of that unique contribution only you can make. But you’re just one voice, and you don’t understand all that you see, so you need to listen to the other voices, describing what only they can see, and what they can understand of it. So some of the courage is to see and hear and consider, and then to adjust your thinking based on the new light and knowledge you received in the process. It’s hard. Very hard.
Don’t wuss out. Get your helmet, suit up, and get in the game. Let go of your ego (it’s not your friend). Be ready to fall down. When you find you’re on the ground, stand up and get back into the game. It is better to look stupid while you are learning than to look smart while remaining stupid. You have been blessed to live in a time when you can participate in a place like this, where people from all over the world can come and tell you why you’re wrong with the courage that comes from knowing they’ll never have to see your face or have you see their faces. With time, practice, and growth, you get better. You won’t be right all the time, but you’ll be right oftener, and you’ll know where you’re right and wrong oftener. Don’t bury your unique voice in the ground — bring it to the exchange, and make it grow. Truth is not fragile stuff, made of spun sugar and glass. Truth is sturdy, hard stuff, and you can beat it and push on it and twist on it and it will remain. You have to hunt it down, dig it out, and work hard to sift it away from error a grain at a time. You can’t do that in your comfort zone.
So, shake it off. You’re not a deer, and these aren’t headlights. You’re not in danger here. You’re among friends. A little butt-kicking never hurt anybody.