Controversy: Friend or Foe?


In the current climate of contention, many seem to see controversy as indication of animosity or ‘wrongness’ rather than an entry point to discussion.

What is that turns a difference of opinion or even heated disputes into declarations of allegiance or betrayal?

How does dissent become a call for combative rhetoric, rather than an invitation for conversation and possibly a point of understanding where one might’ve been wrong, been wronged, been blind, been blinded, yet can still find growth?

Why do so many find arguments a threat and varied views a sign of weakness or enmity?

Where have we gone so wrong, so long, that we forgot what we should already know?

In the give and take of conversation, even very young children learn that not all share their point of view, and that they cannot always get their way (not should they). They hopefully learn how to persuade as well as how to accept that not all persuasion means they’ll get their heart’s desire … That they aren’t wrong to have wishes even if those did not manifest, and that to not get their way doesn’t make them weak or ‘losers’, nor does it make the other ‘stronger’ or a ‘winner.’

Living as part of a healthy society requires we accept differences and listen to more than just the echoes of our personal view chambers – be it in the small groupings of family, classroom, playground, and work environment; or in the bigger congregations of towns and cities, countries and religions and cultures and the whole blue marble we’re all traveling on.

How much do we lose if we refuse to engage with anyone who sees a different perspective; if we attack any who disagree with words that are meant to silence, put down, dismiss, disown, distract?

How much do we limit our humanity – and our children’s, for they are watching – if we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’; into those in the ‘right’ and those in the ‘wrong’ (and any who do not share our views we place automatically into the latter …). If we split the world into those who are ‘with us’ and therefore somehow morally superior, and those who ‘must be against us’ if they challenge things to not be exactly as we see then?

Controversy is the soil of growth. It can be made good use of, or it can be muddied into insult-slinging till it buries up real issues under heaps of refusal and refuse. Dissent can offer new space and pathways, or it can become no-mans-lands where any who dare venture risk a wounding and the blame for encroaching their view point onto another’s walled-off boundary.

I listen to children negotiating play: who will be whom, what the rules would be, how best to proceed, who gets to ‘be whom’ for how long, how far to push the limits of roles and imagination and possibility … And I think to myself: It is from the mouths of babes we should re-learn how to engage. How to take turns listening. How to accept that we do not hold absolute truth about almost anything, and that our views do not give us the right to hurt, to harm, to wound, to bully.

Much power is already cemented into viewpoints. An ossification of attitudes as proof for battles ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in pseudo-righteousness tips the balance of discussion so it loses any common ground and becomes blind to shared humanity and understanding. It is past time we all re-learn, remember, and take on added practice … for how to keep open hearts to and amidst controversy.


Photo by: prepare2play


For The Daily Post

She’s really pretty, but …

The pre-teen shows up to session looking distracted.

She is usually beaming and rearing to tell me about small successes and upcoming weekend fun. When I ask her if everything is alright, she just nods absentmindedly (and not too convincingly) and bites her lips in indecision. I give her a moment, busying myself with some papers in her work-file that don’t quite need sorting but keep my gaze elsewhere.

“Can someone be your friend and not your friend at the same time?” she finally asks.

“I guess it depends. Be your friend and not your friend at the same time, how?” I respond, not wanting to assume I understood what she was referring to and preferring to give her the opportunity to explain.

“Hmm …” she nods, pauses. “I mean, like if your friend is, like, sometimes behaving like your best friend and all and you hang out together and all that and sometimes she’s mean or just ignores you or, like, goes with other people, or says things about you that are secret. Stuff like that.” Color rises in her cheeks and her eyes get bright with unshed tears.

“That is a tough one.” I state gently. “I guess I’d try to have a heart-to-heart conversation with that friend, to see what is going on.”

The girl looks startled. “But what if she never wants to be my friend anymore?” she blurts.

“Well …,” I pause, “if it were you, would you want a friend to tell you if she felt that there was something wrong between you two?”

“Yeah, but …” she begins, hesitates, “… she’s not like that.”

“How is she, then?”

“She … she’s real popular …” blush rises higher. “She’s really pretty and smart and everyone wants to be her friend …” she looks down.

Children know that wanting to be liked by popular classmates is not the best friendship seeking reason to admit to adults … However, the reality remains that popularity matters, and that especially at that age the social hierarchy easily translates into all manners of self-acceptability and relative self-worth. Whether one follows the ‘most popular’ crowd or not, it is difficult to not yearn to be among the ‘chosen few’ of the perceived best clique and the popularity it bestows.

I wait.

“… you see, she doesn’t need me to be her friend. I just try to ignore it if she’s mean because if I told her it was not okay or to not share private stuff and such, she’d just like, walk away and not be my friend anymore … and her friends won’t either …”

“I see,” I note. “This does feel like it would be a tough spot. Though it does make me wonder what kind of a friendship it is if someone ignores you if you tell them what you think or feel.”

She nods, picks at a chipped piece of nail-polish on her ring finger. It is dark blue, not the usual pastels that this girl seems to prefer. I have a guess why this color now, but I keep it to myself. I give her another moment. Kids need time to formulate their feelings into thoughts, let alone to get their courage up to share what may bring critic from adults or have them feel vulnerable.

“She likes dark blue, you know,” she adds, quietly picking at the nail-polish. “She said that all her friends like it, too, because it is the coolest …”

“Hmmm… ” I offer, my hunch confirmed.

“I don’t think she’s a very good friend,” the girl whispers, then looks up at me, confused by her own words and their implications. “But … but how can she not be a good friend and be so popular? I mean, everyone wants to be with her and get invited to her sleepovers or stuff so doesn’t this mean she is nice?”

“Good question,” I respond. “There are all kinds of reasons people can be popular and why others want to be close to them: sometimes it really is because they are nice and fun to be with, and other times it may be because they are famous, or rich, or can get them things, or it makes those who are allowed to be with them feel important …”

“She’s the prettiest girl in the whole grade!” she interrupts me, “… she has the coolest clothes and a whole walk-in closet in her own suite at home and they even have a movie room with a popcorn machine in it.” She blushes again. “She’s really pretty,” she adds quietly, “but I don’t think I actually like her … it is just … that it feels nice to be in the popular group and have other girls know you are cool and stuff …”

She looks up at me then, decisive. “Maybe I don’t need to be her friend,” she says. “I mean, I don’t hate her or anything, she’s not like, horrible. She can be nice sometimes … but sometimes she doesn’t care … and she tells secrets like they are jokes and it’s not really funny. I don’t like that. My friend Brianna is different. We always have fun and I can tell her things and she won’t tell on me. I think Brianna is a good friend for real.”

I smile.

She smiles back, then spreads her hands on the table and looks at her dark blue fingernails. “And you know what? I don’t like this stupid dark blue color, either. It is nice on Alison, but my hands like light purple better …”