A few weeks ago, while doing activism, I spoke with Travis. When I asked him what he thought about abortion, he told me that he was a relativist and that “everyone must live by their own truth.” Several questions later he still stuck to the same tune.
I've found that it's quite simple to ask questions that disprove someone's belief in relativism, often starting with: "Is it okay for someone to just punch somebody else?" or "Can I take your backpack and call it my own?" These questions can often reveal that people do believe in limits to ‘one's own truth.’
However, even after asking these questions, Travis didn't budge. I escalated the scenarios. Was Travis okay with drunk driving? Assault? Murder? Travis continued consistently saying that although he was against these according to his truth, he couldn't tell anyone else to live differently than their truth. Most people I meet who claim to believe in relativism don't hold their beliefs as far as Travis did, so I tried to find out why Travis clung to his views so tightly. As I asked Travis questions about why he believed—moving away from the questions of simply what he believed—he started to open up.
Through the hundreds of conversations I've had I know that everyone has a unique story, but I still wasn't fully prepared for the reason why Travis held such an incomprehensible worldview.
"I want to be a father," he told me. "I know I'm not in the best spot to have a kid right now. My girlfriend says that if I get her pregnant, she'll have an abortion. She laughs about it and I lay awake in bed at night just so sad that I won't get to be a dad. All her friends are the same."
I was taken aback. I'd suspected that there was a personal reason Travis believed what he did but I didn't expect that he was trying to reconcile his deepest desire that was being denied by his loved ones’ wrong beliefs. His biggest dream in life - to be a father - was being kept from him by other people's ‘truths’. I knew in that moment that I didn't need to convince Travis of the truth. We'd already discussed it and he had all the evidence for it before him. In that moment, what Travis needed was to be heard. He needed someone to understand him, to encourage him, and to show him the good things he intuitively recognized to be right, even if he wasn’t ready yet to identify with a position that was so contrary to those closest to him.
"I think that's awesome that you want to be a father," I told Travis, "and there's a lot of girls that would really respect that." I affirmed the good beliefs that Travis had, listened to him, and continued to chat with him about his dreams and goals. Gradually, as I listened and sought to understand Travis, the whole tone of our conversation changed.
As the conversation went on it was Travis who brought it back to abortion. "You know what?” he said. “I think that not too many years from now people will look on abortion the same way we now view slavery, the Holocaust, and homophobia." He agreed that abortion is always wrong and told me he’d talk to his girlfriend—he couldn’t risk his own child being aborted.
It's important to know what people believe and sometimes that's all our conversations will consist of. However, if we’re speaking to someone who doesn’t seem to understand logic and reason, and we feel the conversation is stuck, that’s often the time we need to find out the why behind their beliefs. Maybe, like with Travis, we'll find hidden dreams, real pain, and a person who desperately needs a friend to listen to them, value them, and affirm in them what is right.