Conversations with Evangelists

As a writer, I’ve gotten used to working on my own. I spend hours and months and years in isolation to bring something to life. It’s a great lifestyle for an introvert like me.

One of the unexpected pleasures of having a book be relatively successful is that it’s gotten me out of the house, in a very specific way. I’ve done interviews and podcasts and book talks, which are wonderfully constrained, enclosed encounters that last a knowable amount of time. They’re fun and engaging and totally fit my need for human interaction. I’ve always enjoyed one-on-one conversations and small groups, feel overwhelmed in big cocktail parties and potlucks. And when doing a presentation, even a presentation to a room of 600, it’s still an enclosed performance followed by a series of one-on-one questions and comments. Works great.

But there’s been one particular kind of one-on-one that’s been harder to take: when someone sees my work as a validation of their long-held beliefs, and wants me to join their crusade. Sometimes those are just silly. One of the very first comments I got about the work was from a father who’d sent his two sons to Texas A&M, and who said (in paraphrase), “You really hit the nail on the head! I didn’t spend all this money to have my kids taught by foreign-speaking foreigners, and the H1B visa program is a disgrace, and…” What he read is not what I wrote—often enough the case, I suppose.

Others are harder. Education reformers and social reformers alike have wanted me to join their community, to lend my weight (and my money) to their cause. And some of them really won’t get off the porch. Because I’m a nice guy and I was raised to please other people, it’s hard for me to just say “No. Go away. This conversation is over.” I can do that with salespeople, because they’re totally used to it, and they’ve got two thousand more names on the contact list after I hang up the phone. But the reformers really are motivated by what they see as noble goals, and I can empathize with their intentions even while I think that their messianic strategies aren’t likely to achieve what they want. They see me as a potential ally in their journey to utopia, and that’s a tough stance to negotiate with.

One of the difficulties with those conversations is that they’re asymmetric. I respect their beliefs, and their project. I have no interest in convincing them that I think they’re wrong. They’ve found work that they’re committed to, a circumstance deeply to be admired. But because of their convictions, they have no similar reticence about trying to convert me. “If you’d only just read [fill in the blank… L Ron Hubbard, The Book of Mormon, Franklin Graham, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky…], you’d see the truth!” Well, I could read a lot of things. I could read the Koran, the Bagavad Gita, the collected works of George Fox. I could read The Art of the Deal, Your Best Life Now, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Every evangelist has the book that provides the answer. And I have no interest in trying to undermine their faith.

I admire evangelical fervor. I have it myself, in the classroom. But I know enough to know that not everyone will be interested in following my particular path, and that each of the people I talk with can discover any number of ideas and connections that will add meaning to their life and their work. Being an enthusiast is not the same as being a missionary. You have to know when to let it go.

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