Getting Along

Some Principles of Engagement

A lighthearted look at getting along with each other

JimCoffinby James Coffin

When I do premarital counseling, I teach the soon-to-be-married couple a little mantra. It goes like this: “My beloved is good. My beloved is smart.” I have the couple say it over and over and over. And then I have them say it some more!

Obviously, none of us choose to marry someone we think is evil and/or stupid. We marry because we think our beloved is both good and smart. And there are a lot of other highly positive characteristics we would also say our beloved possesses! We think we’re getting a good deal.

However, the reality of marriage is that there will be moments–even if ever so rare–when our beloved will do or say something that, from our perspective, seems to call into question whether he or she is truly “good” and/or truly “smart!” Have you ever noticed?

At such moments, it’s easy to give in to the temptation to loudly and emphatically voice our doubts as to our beloved’s “goodness” and “smartness”! It’s easy to lash out with some negative comment. Some put-down. Some sling-off. And too often we do just that. But almost as bad as blurting out something highly judgmental is just thinking it, yet saying nothing. Either way, trust and respect are likely to be eroded.

At such moments we need to remember “the mantra,” saying it over and over until we’ve calmed down: “My beloved is good. My beloved is smart. My beloved is good. My beloved is smart.”

Then we need to solve the mystery of just how a good and smart person could do or say what our beloved just did or said. But note: The most important part of this exercise is to refuse to let go of our commitment to the premise that our beloved is both good and smart.

So what am I getting at?

I believe that human interaction in general isn’t all that much different from marital interaction. While I’m willing to acknowledge that there are perhaps a handful of truly evil people in the world, I would argue that they are rare. I believe most of us want to be good. And most of us are smart. The problem is, a person looking on at any given situation might not perceive us to be good and smart. So let’s pursue this just a little further.

Not only do I buy into the idea that most people are good and smart, I’m convinced that, with few exceptions, most people are logical–despite how illogical they may seem to me at any given moment! In all probability, they’re simply basing their logic on a radically different set of data.

Judged on the basis of (a) their life experience, (b) what they’ve been taught, (c) their tender spots, bruises and scars, (d) their basic assumptions–in short, what I would call “their data”–their response to any given situation will almost always make sense. There’s an internal coherence. There’s a pattern. There’s a logic. And any who share–or who can at least understand–much of “their data” will recognize that logic. But because my life experience, learning and assumptions–“my data”–may be substantially different from theirs, I may not be able to grasp why they connect the dots the way they do.

When I refuse to settle for the superficial, when I take the time to explore beneath the surface, when I quit judging the actions and reactions of others on the basis of “my data,” I’m likely to discover that their thinking makes a lot more sense than I originally thought. In fact, their thinking may even open up whole new avenues of understanding and experience for me. But it takes energy and commitment and determination to gain that level of understanding of other humans, whether we’re talking about a spouse, our children, our neighbors, some ethnic group, a nationality or a faith tradition.

But why am I talking about all this?

As the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, we want to make a difference in our community. We want to foster deeper understanding, greater respect, a more cooperative spirit. We want to speak with a united voice on an array of subjects that are important to us all. We want to engage in joint ventures for community betterment. Yet our organization is made up of a group of people who are about as diverse as can be found anywhere.

All of us know how difficult it can be at times to form consensus and preserve harmony even within the relative uniformity of our own faith tradition. Think how much more challenging it is in the context of the diversity we find in the Interfaith Council. But, trust me, the rewards are proportional to the challenge.

If we can work harmoniously together, if we can hammer out foundational statements for our organization, if we can prepare consensus statements to address major social and moral issues in the public arena, if we can prepare media releases that have the blessing of each group represented, if we can work hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder to make our community better in tangible, practical, down-to-earth ways, we will have achieved something truly amazing, truly wonderful and truly worthwhile. And it will be not only a great benefit to the community but a great blessing to each of us and a great tribute to spirituality in general.

But it won’t be easy. It won’t just happen automatically. No matter how careful we try to be, no matter how judiciously we choose our words, no matter how respectful we are, there’s always the risk of being misunderstood. What we have in the Interfaith Council–and want to build on even more–could easily disintegrate. Dissension could invade and harmony flee. We could become discouraged or frustrated or angry. We could decide to wash our hands of the whole exercise–which, I believe, would be a tragedy. It would be a tragedy for us as Executive Committee members as well as for the Orlando community. But it can happen. And it has happened in other places where interfaith dialogue and action once looked promising but got derailed somewhere along the way.

Which brings me back to where I started this little treatise: Maybe we need a mantra.

This unique “marriage” called the “Interfaith Council of Central Florida” has come about because we’ve decided that the partners are, among their many other qualities, good and smart. We’ve decided that the relationship has great potential and is worth the investment of time, energy and resource that’s required. But to succeed, we must never lose sight of our belief–we need to say it over and over and over!–that “our beloved” (i.e. all those with whom we work on the Interfaith Council) are both good and smart.

The reality of life is that there will be moments–even if ever so rare–when someone among “our beloved” will do or say something that calls into question whether he or she is truly “good” and “smart!” When that happens, let’s categorically refuse to let go of our commitment to the premise that “our beloved are ALL both good and smart.”

Instead of getting upset with others, let’s get beneath the surface to discover and truly understand “their data.” Only then is there any hope of that member of “our beloved” understanding “my data.” But, assuredly, when we understand each other’s “data,” the marriage called the “Interfaith Council of Central Florida” will flourish and prosper. And we’ll all be the better for it.

James Coffin wrote this in 2012, shortly after assuming his role as  Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. Although written with the members of the Interfaith Council Executive Committee in mind, the principles apply far more broadly–to the bulk of human relationships, actually.