A Week Without Opinions, Day 1: Hair-splitting , Humility, Happiness


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Quote of the day: “Quiet people have opinions too.” – Dan Evans

Yesterday was the first full day of my “opinion fast,” and I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve learned from the experiment already. It’s been strange to see how changing just one habit can impact so many areas of life—attitude, relationships, group dynamics, even scheduling and time management.  It’s been humbling and enlightening to realize just how much I can learn about myself and other people when I listen more and speak less.

For the first few hours of the fast, the biggest challenge was simply determining what should count as an opinion. For example, does saying, “I think you’ve got a pair of kings” to a fellow poker player count as an opinion? What about telling a friend I like her haircut? What about making note of Mark Driscoll’s or Bill O’Reilly’s strongest points in an effort to be more open and receptive to what they have to say? What about a chuckle or a mumble?

I decided that the best way to sort all this out was to focus on the purpose of the experiment.

The goal of the opinion fast is to become a better listener, to learn to think before I speak, and to show more openness and generosity to those with whom I disagree.  The goal is to break my addiction to my own opinions, to redefine self-expression as something other than a need.

With these goals in mind, it became pretty easy to tell when I broke one of the rules and when I was just talking like a normal person. To get an idea of what I mean, here are the two instances when I expressed an opinion worthy of doing penance yesterday:

Slip-up 1: Every week, I look forward to recording or watching Sunday morning news programs like “Meet the Press,” “Reliable Sources,” and “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” But in the spirit of the fast, I decided to stick to Fox News exclusively. So yesterday, while watching a report I didn’t like, I called Dan upstairs and told him to “get a load of this.” Obviously this was a sneaky way of saying, “Isn’t this ludicrous?” I counted it at as opinion because rather than just listening on my own and allowing the information and ideas to exist without a reaction, I called Dan into the room in hopes that I could feed off of his snickers and eye rolls. I counted it as an opinion because I refused to allow someone else’s ideas to go unchallenged.

Slip-up 2: The second rule-break occurred during poker, when a friend (originally from out West) noted that nearly everyone at the table was a Southern transplant, and asked if I too was a Yankee. In a knee-jerk reaction, I said, “hell no,” which of course implied that I’d rather be homeless than be born north of the Mason Dixon.

While the first few hours of the fast forced me to scrutinize my every word, the next few hours forced me to swallow more than one very thick and bitter spoonful of pride.

I’m not sure why, but I had the impression going into this that people would so appreciate my humility and openness that they’d sorta cut me some slack and be all disarmed and touched and stuff. This was not really the case. More than once someone said, “I’m just glad you’re actually going to listen for a change.” Responses like these stung a little, but they were important for me to hear.  I’m realizing that some people—particularly those who are shy or more hesitant to express themselves—can feel utterly steamrolled by me at times. I’m realizing just how insensitive I can be.

Furthermore, as people have taken advantage of the opportunity to tell me just what they think about religion and politics, I’ve really struggled with the idea that they might think they’ve actually changed my mind. For some reason, I don’t want to give them that satisfaction. It’s almost like a control issue. I can’t have them thinking they’ve won me over. This is an ugly truth to confront because it tells me that I’m not as interested in true dialog as I’d like to think. Mostly Im just interested in advancing my own agenda and protecting my own insecurities.  

But after the first few hours of biting my tongue and the next few hours of confronting my own ugliness, a strange sense of freedom and peace began to emerge.

After spending an evening with friends, I began to realize the degree to which my soap box addiction is the result of a self-imposed sense of responsibility. For whatever reason, (probably having something to do with the fact that I consider myself more smart than attractive), I’ve carved out this social niche for myself and almost become enslaved to it. I’m always the one to explain various theological positions to my friends. I’m always the one to have an opinion about which of those positions is best. I’m always the one trying to set people straight when I think they have it wrong. 

But without my regular role to play, without feeling compelled to educate or argue or defend, I was free to sit back and listen. And after a while, holding back began to feel marvelously liberating. I felt like I was off the hook, like I’d suddenly quit a job I never liked that much to begin with.  Before I knew it, folks were asking me for my opinion, even expressing some irritation that I couldn’t give it!

Not only has the opinion fast changed the way I interact in groups, it’s changed how I interact with my husband Dan.  For the first time in a long time, he is sharing more and I am sharing less. I’m stepping back and allowing him to carry conversations. Throughout the process, he’s been incredibly encouraging and supportive, and he’s told me several times how much he respects me for taking on this challenge. I’ve always known that Dan has a lot of good things to say, but sometimes I just drown him out anyway. It’s amazing how much closer we’ve become over such a short period of time.

So at the end of the first day, I felt both sobered and liberated. I realized that it wasn’t my job to set everyone straight or fix every bad idea. I realized that other people have good things to say and contribute. I realized that instead of giving up a privilege, I’d given away a burden. 

I also realized that my guest bathroom was extraordinarily clean...thanks to Fox News and my dear Yankee friends!

So, do you struggle with any self-imposed roles? What do you think would happen if you suddenly stopped playing them?

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