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December 26th, 2007

A New Year's resolution

by Barbara Wallraff

I’m going to take the long way around in inviting you to join me in a New Year’s resolution: My friends Jay and Nancy visited the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan in 2007. Jay got a kick out of learning a bit of Dzongkha, the official language. But even more exotic than the language, he thought, was how nonconfrontational the Bhutanese are in what they choose to say -- in English as well as Dzongkha. For instance, Jay told me, he and Nancy wanted to buy a small, locally made statue of Buddha. They figured it had better be a metal one if they were going to get it home in one piece. Their guide regretfully explained that Bhutanese Buddha statues are always made of clay -- never metal. Nonetheless, they found a metal Buddha said to be from Bhutan, bought it and took it to show to their guide. He didn’t say: “You idiots. You’ve been scammed.” He didn’t say: “You Americans really are pig-headed. You won’t listen to anyone, will you?” He said, “If it pleases you, I am glad.”

Jay and Nancy learned as much about the society and government as they could while they were in Bhutan. A sizable majority of the population is Buddhist. It’s a monarchy, but -- get this -- the king recently renounced absolute power and ordered that the country’s first parliamentary elections be held, because he thinks democracy will be better for the country. The citizens are reluctant, but because it’s what the king wants, they’re going along with it.

When Jay got home, he started telling friends that religion and government are completely intertwined in Bhutan, and this seems to serve the country well. A typical response was: “That’s impossible. What a terrible system!” Hardly anyone said: “Really? Why do you think so?” -- let alone “If it pleases you, I am glad.”

I don’t mean to advocate intertwining religion and government in a diverse society like ours. Not even Jay is in favor of that. I bring all this up because I have similar confrontational interactions constantly -- and I’ll bet you do too. You try to tell people something new, but they think they already know everything there is to know on the subject, and if your opinion about it is different from theirs, it’s not even worth considering.

A natural result of our diversity is that members of our society have a spectrum of opinions on practically any subject. Why it doesn’t also come naturally to recognize that others are entitled to think differently than we do, I don’t know. Those others may be equally right about some things, and they might even be completely right and we’re wrong -- why is this so hard for us to accept?

I’m not talking about extreme situations, such as respecting a psychopath’s belief that it’s OK to set buildings on fire. I’m talking about everyday situations, where taking in what another person thinks won’t have any negative consequences for anyone. Here’s hoping you’ll join me in a New Year’s resolution to hear people out before deciding whether or not to agree with them.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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