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How do you “win” an argument? If you convinced the other person about the truth of your point of view, did you actually win?
It happens a million times a day—two people get into a heated argument. They go back and forth, over and over. Each person digs in their heels and won’t budge from their position. Finally, at some point, they give up. They agree to disagree. Neither person accepts the main points advanced by the other.
Then days, weeks, maybe even years later, one of those people will have totally changed their mind. They may even admit, “you were right all along.” I’ve personally seen this happen numerous times. Sometimes, I change my mind. Other times, I’m surprised to see the other person come around to what I was trying to say. Of course, we’ve all had these experiences—they’re a common part of life.
Once people really get into a debate or an argument, though, only rarely does one side change their mind right away, even though they may act like they’re a few strong statements away from losing the argument. Two big reasons for this are selfishness and pride, which we should always strive to minimize in our minds and hearts. But there’s also something else going on that I think is more innocent, something that’s more natural to the basic way people develop their ideas and points of view.
Our minds take time to process new and contrasting perspectives. When we debate or argue with each other, we cram statements into each others’ heads in a rapid-fire way. Most of the time, by arguing vociferously, we simply delay the moment when each side has the clarity of mind to examine the other side’s points. In order to have stretches of deep and transformative thought—to change our minds—we typically need a space that allows us to reflect, think and ponder. We need a period of time when we can turn our spirits inward and expose our pre-existing opinions to the dynamism and creativity of the human mind.
Most of us naturally crave those spaces of reflection. Some of us don’t feel our day is complete without one. Others, more extroverted and fast-paced, feel we need a little reflection on occasion to stay sane. But in whatever form we have it, spaces of reflection open the mind to new insights and discoveries. The Baha’i writings say:
… there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.
It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed …
Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit—the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation …. May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 225-226.
As with any of our natural urges, just because we want something doesn’t mean that we automatically have a way to fulfill it. This is one of the roles that religion and spirituality plays in the life of the individual and of society. We need routine practices, living traditions, and educational processes that give structure and substance to the human capacity for reflection.
Methods of prayer and meditation—passed down through the ages and given new emphasis by each generation—lend vitality to our moral and intellectual lives. They not only enable us to attain spiritual enlightenment and draw nearer to our creator, they can also make us more receptive to the truth of any matter and imbue our relationships with sympathy, understanding and loving-kindness.
Any community or movement that wants to bring about a more enlightened, truth-seeking, scientifically aware populace needs to take into account the need for spaces of reflection. Mere conversation and debate is not enough. Once the exchange of ideas ends, the spirit’s thirst for introspection must be accommodated.
This also has implications for how we openly grapple with disagreement in the first place. Winning the argument isn’t everything. When we trade contrasting points of view, we need to remember that the outcome probably won’t occur at the end of the conversation. If you’re a thinking person, the exchange sows the seeds for further thinking.
That means, naturally, that the goal of any debate or argument should focus on finding the truth, not on determining a winner and a loser. We shouldn’t trample on the other person’s words just because they haven’t outwardly accepted what we’ve said. It’s extremely difficult to know what chain of thoughts have been set in motion, for them and for us as well. If we allow the heat of an argument to poison the relationship, it only makes it harder to open a space for genuine personal reflection later.
So even if days, weeks, or years later we come around to the other person’s point of view, if we have received the breath of the Holy Spirit, and become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, haven’t we truly “won” the argument?