Monday, February 14, 2011

Two Ways of Knowing

"Between dependence and independence lies the overlooked land of interdependence. Interdependence is more than depending on each other to get a task done, like the spokes of a wheel depend on the hub. We're all interdependent in this way. The interdependence that colors our souls is when ... we see ourselves as 'me in relationship' rather than 'me as autonomous.'" Jonalyn Grace Fincher, Ruby Slippers, p. 117

Being independent can be a great source of strength. Independent people tend to be skeptical; they question, doubt, and look for inconsistencies and contradictions.They want to get at the truth of the matter. Most academic settings favor this form of knowing. Some may say it's the only, best, or most rational form of knowing.

But some of us have a greater desire for or tendency toward interdependence and this flows over into our ideas about "knowing." Encountering new ideas and information, we are more likely to listen for the sake of entering into what the other person is saying and relate to it, being able to understand and say, "I see what you mean."

Jonalyn calls it "connected" knowing as opposed to "separate" knowing, and says most us are more comfortable with one than the other. And often, women are more comfortable with connected knowing, with interdependence rather than independence. Do you agree? She would never call this exclusively a feminine trait, but describes it as one of a handful of traits that characterize many women and can help us understand ourselves. If she's right, it could help explain why more women than men take an interest in stories and literature: we suspend disbelief and fall under the writer's spell. "As one psychologist put it, 'Many women find it easier to believe than to doubt.'"

Here's how Jonalyn describes this trait in herself:
"Because I am interdependent, my beliefs are formed out of what others think about me. I desire to be needed by others. Relationships provide the means for me to understand my past, my goals, my character, my work, and my methods; and I emotionally want that. My thoughts regularly revolve around what they said or what she suggested, or what he noticed. I choose to have long conversations and drawn-out discussions to make sure everyone is content and understands me, and I, them. My will may need the buttressing of others' encouragement." (pp. 117-118)
Have you ever thought about this in gender terms? I've run across something similar in personality theories, e.g., MBTI (Myers-Briggs). "The ENTP loves a debate - the ENFJ loves a discussion," a close friend points out to me. He's the ENFJ; I'm the ENTP. Debate? For me, I think it really depends. While I love hashing out patterns and observations and hearing stories and case studies, when it comes to making diagnoses and drawing conclusions about the way things "are" in some objective sense, I start to squirm. I think it has to do with "connectedness." (And, bringing in another psychological theory, my #1 theme on the Gallup "StrengthFinder" assessment is "connectedness." They use a fairly similar definition.)

I've been feeling some of this tension at a church class I'm part of on Sunday mornings. I go, mostly, for the connectedness. I feel I can make a contribution; they miss me if I'm not there. But the actual content of the class can be troubling. We're looking at current events, often public policy issues, and discussing how we as Christians interpret and respond to them and why. The class is called "dealing with the difficult." But most everyone else in the class is part of the conservative Christian right, and only a few of them know that I'm more part of the, er, "Christian left" (Scott, if you're reading this, there you go).

Several of these friends tend to make sweeping generalizations about the way Christians "should" look at government issues - what the government should and shouldn't do. A few of them speak with both great passion and what seems to me great ignorance, as if they've been listening to talk radio call-in shows through too much static. Every time I hear them use the words "liberal" and "government," "Democrats" and "Obama" as if these were synonyms for evil and godlessness I want to speak up, to object, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. I don't want to try to risk offending them, being misunderstood, or making a fool of myself. I don't want to fight; don't think it's worth fighting over. The holes in their arguments may seem glaring, but in a minute or two the conversation will shift. So, except for the occasions when I burst out with something incoherent (or make a joke) I usually sit and squirm and wait for the conversation to shift into areas where we have more common ground. Several of these conservatives, though, are very wise, and I've appreciated their well-thought out perspectives.

I think I'll keep going. But I wonder if I'll ever be comfortable in groups that delight in challenge and controversy. I know many - both men and women - who would say the same.
"Most people use both connected and separate knowing, though we usually prefer one over the other. We feel most comfortable with one. I can act like a separate knower and play the devil's advocate - I learned the skill at home as a young teen. My father and I would go back and forth in sparring matches during dinnertime, questioning, doubting, cross-examining each other. It was exciting for me, but I know that even when I won the match, I felt separated from my dad. The knowledge was sweet, but I didn't like feeling separated. Separate knowing didn't build my emotional connection with my father. Though debating with him was exciting on one level, what I really wanted was to know and understand him. I didn't want to prove or disprove an abstract argument. I couldn't relax in the debate because I was all the while wondering if he or I was going to get our feelings hurt. To me it wasn't all fun and games. It wasn't really between our positions, it was between persons. So while I can perform as a separate knower, I prefer connected knowing. It comes more naturally to me." (p. 120)
> Which do you prefer, debate or discussion? Evaluating the issues or hearing people's experiences? Questioning or identifying? How do you maintain openness to and respect for those who differ from you on this?

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