Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: Understanding is Not Complicity

This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here

To say it can be difficult to sit in the room with someone whose ideology we find incomprehensible may be an understatement. Sometimes it feels impossible. Torturous. Unbearable. I’m sure we’ve all been in rooms—or in Facebook and Twitter fights—with people whose ideologies and positions directly contradict our own. Sometimes, they even threaten our sense of self and safety. Staying in the room and trying to understand the perspectives we find so indefensible can feel wrong because to listen and learn can seem like complicity.

Pádraig spoke about this in the context of the politics of Northern Ireland. Protestants and Catholics at times struggle to stay in the same room with each other. Listening in order to understand can cause you to fear that others may think you’re agreeing. And we don’t want to look complicit when it comes to the perspective of our enemies; we want to look resolute in our disdain for their worldviews. Pádraig explained that understanding is not complicity, though; understanding is just understanding.

Being able to articulate the story of your enemy—or the spouse, coworker, friend, etc. you’re fighting with—is an essential skill in resolving conflict. If we cannot summarize the other’s position or belief in a way that feels recognizable to them, then we probably don’t understand what they’re saying. Every time I teach on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I tell those in the room that before they condemn Palestinian violence, they should seek to understand it. “Could you articulate right now,” I ask, “why a Palestinian might engage in violence? And can you do it in a way that would feel true to that Palestinian? If not, then you probably don’t truly understand what you’re condemning.” And being able to understand it is not the same as justifying it, or agreeing with it, or supporting it. It’s simply being able to get your head around why and how that person, in their context with their story and their pain and their experiences and their relationships and their wiring, might come to think and act as they do. In the end, this is all about empathy.

It’s curious how afraid we can be of understanding perspectives we don’t agree with. Maybe we’re nervous we’ll be converted—because being converted to new thinking can be dangerous. We build whole worlds around certain ways of thinking. To risk conversion is to risk the unmaking of those worlds. And sometimes it’s easier to believe a lie than to chance being unraveled by a truth.


  1. Kathy Plourde says:

    I’ve been told and I think it is true that to be in a real conversation is to be willing to have my mind changed… the operative word being willing. . To listen with an open mind and heart and to listen to the other as I want them to listen to me…

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