Amy L. Farnham

Toy soldiers with text "We cannot win our real war on a battlefield of opinions."

I don’t usually read my alumni magazine, but the cover of the spring issue caught my eye. It arrived a few short weeks after I began working from home due to the pandemic, and it has stayed within sight through the months since, on my couch, on my coffee table, my kitchen counter, my bed. Now it’s tacked up on my cork board along with a few other quotes I can never get tired of: “Say big dreams out loud,” “An idea that is not dangerous is not worthy to be called an idea at all…”

The quote on my magazine cover is this:

The question before us is how to become one in spirit, not necessarily one in opinion.

One in spirit. Not necessarily one in opinion.

I certainly have opinions. Strong ones. Who doesn’t right now? When our collective decisions about how we go about our normal lives have life or death consequences on a massive scale, it’s hard not to sweat the injustices, even the petty ones.

But then again, have our collective decisions ever been inconsequential?

I have opinions. Opinions about mask wearing. Opinions about how the police should do their job. Opinions about how protesters have a right to behave, or at least an opinion about how far my empathy with them stretches my ideas about right and wrong one day to the next. I have opinions and I like to write, so kicking up the blog to rail against opposing opinions feels as good as a glass of wine after a difficult day at work.

Even so, when I sit down to do it, something just doesn’t feel right, and I remember the cover of my magazine. One in spirit, not necessarily in opinion. I think about the dear friend who walked through divorce with me whose opinion about Black Lives Matter sets my teeth on edge. About the social activist writing partner whose opinions about containing Covid—or even what’s true about the disease—are so wildly different from mine that I nearly fell out of my chair when he started talking about them. I think of my lifelong best friend, whose opinions have almost never been aligned with mine in over 40 years, but whose love is life and breath to me.

I start to write my opinions, hesitating when I remember how much they have evolved, even in just a few years. I think back on my radically changed beliefs about things that I once thought were concrete and readily apparent Truth. I think of the book I am reading about the history of racism, and the wars that have raged in our country over things that we think are ridiculous now.

I am forced to admit that we do not understand each other well as people. When we wax philosophical, we usually get relationship wrong. And in less than 250 years as a country, we still know very little about governing ourselves in freedom and fairness. And religious opinions, well, I bet everyone has a story about how those opinions have failed us at one point or another. And that’s the best case scenario. Religion has a unique power give life or to divide and destroy.

I remember these things, and the opinions that made my backbone straighten moments earlier start to seep to the floor through my feet instead of flowing to the keyboard through my fingertips.

One in spirit. I think of my lifelong friend again, and how, in the face of everything that told us our friendship was implausible bcause of our irreconcilable beliefs, we persisted. We’ve known each other since before we could walk, and there is simply no question of our love for one another. Well, there was once, and I reshaped my opinions in favor of love.

In spite of the high stakes I build my opinions around, I begin to wonder if they are really what matter. Ideas have consequences, but are consequences the biggest thing we have to worry about? I will die someday. Maybe later, maybe soon. Regardless, I have lived long enough to watch my opinions change drastically, and what’s to say it won’t happen again? Ideas, beliefs, opinions all fail us at some point, but if they were any good, they stretch us closer to love and unity and freedom before they collapse. When I am done, I suspect I will care more about the love in my relationships—all of them, family, work, romantic, friendship—than I will care about the specific ideas that got me there.

One in spirit, not opinion. Does that mean we shrug our shoulders and decide that, if opinions do not matter, we do not fight? Humanity is hopelessly flawed and ideas fail, and there are good and bad people holding any given opinion, and even the best-intentioned people get it wrong in some ways? Maybe the best thing is to accept our tragic fate, lay down our weapons, and hug everyone within reach? Isn’t that what it means to love your enemy?

No. There is a fight that is even more critical.

I’ve lost faith in opinons, in rules that seem to show me how to live life successfully, in divisions based on ideas. But as I have done that, my faith in other things has grown exponentially:

  • Dignity
  • Respect for another’s God-given right to struggle to the meaning of life in their own way.
  • Freedom—of mind and heart as much or even more than situation
  • Self-governance and self-knowledge
  • Truth (not to be confused with facts)
  • Perseverance toward one another
  • Joy
  • Love

Any law or opinion will stand or fall based on its ability or inability to uphold those truths. Even the same opinion could be used for or against them, depending on how we wield it. Any institution or government, regardless of its bylaws, beliefs, rules, statutes can serve people or be turned against them in pride and destruction. Even the best do both at some point. Many of us find ourselves camped in belief and opinion with people whose intentions toward those basic deep truths of our humanity are the opposite of ours. The person sitting across from us, the friend speaking our language, may be using the same ideas to actively dismantle the very things we are trying to build. The person whose opinions are abhorrent may be our secret ally.

We are at war, but we are on the wrong battlefield. We fight each other and draw and redraw the line between the sides endlessly, basing it on beliefs and opinions, countries and creeds, hoping this time we will get it right and eradicate the truly bad people and put the good ones in charge.

We cannot win our real war on the battlefield of opinions.

We are in a war for our lives. Not our physical lives (although they are often at stake in this war), but the inner, sacred life of each individual person. That battlefield is hidden under endless layers of ideas and argument, but it is the thing on top of which everything else that we CAN perceive turns.

Like it or not, there is no “in” or “out” group for humanity for this war, we are all in this war for one another’s lives.

We cannot win our real war on the battlefield of opinions

Sometimes we will have to fight our friends to save them. Anyone who has watched a loved one’s inner life be devoured by lies or addiction understands all too well that destructive people are tearing themselves up as much as they tear into others, and we must fight them even while we fight FOR them.

We cannot win until we are one in spirit, fighting the things that are truly tearing us apart.

For the sake of those things—dignity, respect, freedom, self-governance, Truth, perseverance in love, Joy, Love itself—for those things, with those things at stake, my fingers cannot and will not stay still and my voice will not be silent.

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