Can you agree to disagree? (DE Coast Press)

A reader emails me about disagreements she has with her friend. Their differences are on very fundamental levels, and she wonders if there is a point that two people reach when the gap between their values is simply too wide. She asks where that line is, and who she should remove from her life and who she should keep.

I maintain that it’s not a line as much as an arbitrary point. The conventional wisdom is, “Why, it’s selfish to think about who you should keep in your life.” People come up with this holier-than-thou reasoning and then proceed to act on their emotions anyway by cutting people out of their lives without giving a reason — even to themselves. This is supposedly better, because it’s not “cold and selfish.’ Ridiculous. Personal relationships require, and are entitled to, the use of reason as much as any area of life.

So what’s the standard? Simple: The standard is what the person brings to you emotionally. After each interaction, ask yourself, “What did I get out of that?” Do an inventory. Once you have an idea of what you did or didn’t get out of the contact with a person, ask yourself how important those things are to you.

There are degrees, of course. Your friend might prefer a different place to eat, but you both agree on eating, and when you do pick a place, it’s fun. This standard presumes two things.

First, that every minute of your life is precious and important, and not to be squandered. We’re taught that it’s ‘selfish’ to think this way. Ridiculous again.  Most people want to apply this friendship test, but insipid ideas about self-interest preached by our supposed leaders get in the way. Beware of anyone who advises you to be selfless! They always want something.

Second, you need to be able to enjoy your own company. Some things are preferable when shared with another, of course, but if your primary goal is to be with somebody else just for the sake of not being alone, you’ll end up making compromises you shouldn’t make. “It’s Saturday night and I prefer to not be alone.” OK, but at what cost? Will you do something you don’t enjoy just so you’re not alone? This isn’t a good compromise. You’re better off reserving your mental/emotional space for somebody who enriches your life. This beats wasting precious hours doing something you don’t enjoy.

When it comes to disagreement, it depends on the degree. For example, perhaps someone you know doesn’t believe in honesty, but you do. He lies whenever he feels like it. This can have very real consequences for your friendship. Why would you want to be friends with a liar? How will you know whether or not he’s lying?

Many disagreements won’t take away from your friendship. “Bill and I don’t like the same kind of movies, but we do connect on key things, and I like that about him. I’ll spend time with him doing non-movie things.” There are also political, religious or philosophical disagreements among friends. The reader asks at what point she should no longer be friends. There’s no preordained formula, other than the standard I’m offering here. There are a lot of bad philosophical ideas with which we are brainwashed from childhood. Some people internalize these ideas more than others. You can’t necessarily hold that against someone if they otherwise bring value to your life.

It all boils down to what you get out of being with a person. There is no line to draw. It’s all relative. If you get something satisfying — even a smile — out of being with somebody, then you have nothing to apologize for. Problems only arise if you get less out of being with somebody than what you’re putting into the relationship with them. Then you’re not being true to yourself.


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