What’s the Big Idea?
Think of the last time you had to deal with someone whose worldview was clearly totally, 180 degrees, no-common-ground, different from your own. Each thinks the other is morally repugnant. Each shakes their head and asks, “Who even are you?”
With luck, that person is not a relative, and if it’s your Uber driver, the trip is a short one. But fraught encounters like this are probably more common than you’d like. These days, more people than ever are wearing their opinions on their sleeves where they used to wear their hearts.
So we approach each other warily and obliquely until we can’t help ourselves and we burst out with, “What in the world makes you believe that nonsense? Where are you getting your information? Are you crazy?” These questions do not usually get a productive response.
Still, sometimes we honestly, sincerely do not understand how some otherwise decent, competent people can hold opinions we find (pick your adjectives) catastrophically selfish, greedy, naive, bigoted, immature, shortsighted, unkind, unjust, irrational, paranoid, destructive, warmongering, treasonous, counterproductive, unmotivating, disrespectful, immoral… Oh, I’m too tired for this. You get the idea.
Human beings will never run out of ways to characterize, vilify, stereotype, or marginalize someone we don’t understand. It’s one of our best things.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…”
But we don’t have to argue every single point to death in order to understand someone. Nor do we have to buy into the bluster — anyone’s bluster, including our own. Sometimes, all those opinions and slogans and fulminations are simply special effects — smoke and mirrors and flashbangs to distract us from the venal huckster behind the draperies, trying to survive as a wizard.
We don’t understand Oz, the Great and Terrible, until we understand that he is a small-time drifter who is literally marooned in an alien world that he can’t leave. His central story is one of loss and loneliness; like Dorothy, he just wants to go home. That is his Big Idea that motivates him to wield power to get himself home.
Perhaps if we look at everyone the way we see Oz behind his curtain, we might get along better. Who is that person when you take away their gaudy rhetoric and snappy judgments and sassy bigotry? What is their central story? What’s their Big Idea?
Some people’s Big Idea is spiritual; others is worldly or practical; still others are creatures attuned to the senses. My totally unsupported theory is that we attain our Big Idea early on, often before we can even remember. Early trauma, perhaps. Or Sesame Street. No one knows.
It’s possible that, in some ways, our nature since birth informs how we think. I’m not making that up, either. Thinkers like Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff are proposing that self-styled conservatives and liberals really do have different core values and use different language and metaphors. Neurological studies are keen to show that people’s actual brain functions differ according to where they reside on the spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative.”
But I’m not betting the farm on any of those generalizations, and you see I have put irony quotes around the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” That’s because (a) the science is far from settled, and there’s confirmation bias galore in studies like this; and (b) I earnestly disapprove of labeling people. (Or clothes. I literally cut all the labels off my clothes, and I curse the manufacturers if the garment unravels when I do. Don’t they know I may need to become anonymous at any time?)
We all hold some Big Idea within ourselves. For instance, do we believe that human beings are essentially good, or essentially evil, or both? Is the universe a friendly, bountiful place, full of wonders, or is it a dangerous, hellish gulag where people like you are cheated and drained and victimized? Is the human drama one of sin and redemption? Attachment and enlightenment? Self and self-transcendence? If we get to that core, it may explain many of the choices we make in a way that our stated ideologies do not.
My Big Idea is found repeatedly in various wisdom texts, sources, experiences, and faith traditions. It is a simple Big Idea, but it’s difficult to describe, and it’s private — so what you see outside of the curtain will be a complicated universalist, Jesus-following mystical, meta-Christian, radical, bleeding-heart, barely-tolerable contrarian.
But, just like you, my whole is more than the sum of my parts. The wisdom paths I choose are those that resonate with the core of my being — the Big Idea that my small self holds dear.
The people who connect with me the very best — the people that I trust, that I can listen to — are the ones who see beyond my posturing and my personality and my protestations to the core within.
They don’t pick apart my inconsistencies, or harp on my mistakes about foreign policy or welfare reform, or chastise me for pretending to understand things I simply can’t keep up with.
Instead, they speak to my Big Idea: that our lives need to have purpose and meaning, which we find in love and work and compassion and laughter and worship, because we are each divine sparks belonging within the Great and Terrible.
And then we speak together about those Big Ideas, because deep down, below the shouting, there just might be something we can affirm about each other. Why, a relative and I were having a “discussion” that was threatening to get heated because he was just wrong, wrong, wrong about everything, everything, everything.
Until he got quiet for a minute, thinking about the struggles of his grown kids, and said, “In the end, the most important thing is to take care of your family.” And that was his Big Idea. And I looked him in the eye and said, “You’re right.”
So if you measure my idiosyncratic opinions against my Big Idea, I’m sure they will all look tawdry and stupid — rhetorical parlor tricks and whistling in the dark.