Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of my dad’s passing. It was a sacred, impossible, hilarious, formational eight-month journey of liver cancer. I was privileged to accompany him all the way to the river then watched as he took the most difficult step that we take in life’s journey: from this life to the life beyond.
My dad and I had a unique friendship. He was raised to be conservative, politically and theologically. For the most part, he lived his life committed to an ethic that pours out of that particular paradigm. He was wise, cautious, safe, and certain. I, on the other hand, have lived an unconventional life oriented around a Jesus that has invited me into some of the most beautifully bizarre corners of our global village and into uncommon friendships that have expanded my theology, deepened my faith, and shaped the trajectory of my life. To be clear, he wasn’t always comfortable, nor did he always agree with the path that I was walking. It is not safe; it appeared to him unwise; it awakened wonder rather than reinforced preexisting ideas; it was never familiar to him. It’s fair to say that, while we were both decent people, we were quite divided theologically and politically.
Yet, what I learned near the end of his life is that the journey that I’ve taken had propelled my dad beyond safety and convention. It was a journey that he never expected that he’d take but was willing to embark upon because he loved his son. Throughout his final decade, this journey began to renovate his theology, open his mind to more gracious and generous possibilities, and expose him to relationships with people who were far different than he was.
But the transformation wasn’t just for him. Over the years, I watched in awe as we both went from threatened, critical, and defensive to more thoughtful, curious, and eager to know and experience more. We were both being found and formed by Jesus by immersing into and seeking to understand each other’s perspectives. As we journeyed with one another toward his death, both of our appetites grew for the kind of transformation we were experiencing. This journey that he and I had found ourselves navigating together was, in fact, a pilgrimage that reshaped his and continues to reshape my life. We were growing to see God, ourselves, each other, and our world more spaciously…more generously.
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt helps us understand why decent people choose to believe what they believe and how said beliefs bind and blind us. Pointing to the supremacy of intuition over reason, Haidt invites us to consider how our mind is like an elephant and a rider. The elephant is our intuition that has become conditioned to intuit information and experiences and respond in a particular way. Humans, Haidt writes, “are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive and basing their responses on those reactions. Within the first second of seeing, hearing, or meeting another person, the elephant has already begun to lean toward or away, and that lean influences what you think and do next. Intuitions come first.”
The second component of our mind is the rider, or, reason. Rather than a “scientist searching for truth,” Haidt identifies the rider as a “politician searching for votes.” Haidt suggests that all of us are “trapped in a moral matrix where our ‘elephants’ only look for what confirms its moral intuitions while our ‘riders’ play the role of the lawyer; we team up with people who share similar matrices and become close-minded; and we forget that morality is diverse.” Put another way, the elephant drives our behavior and the rider functions as the “press secretary” who works to justify our preferred argument.
The rider does not control the elephant. Rather, Haidt suggests that she can only respond…and hold on.
So how do we change someone’s mind? Haidt writes:
If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way — deeply and intuitively — you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness….
Changing someone’s mind requires that we interact with their elephant (intuition) rather than their rider (reason).
Haidt highlights what my dad and I did poorly as well as what we learned to do well. That is, when my dad and I tried to convert each other’s riders (reason) through evidence and our preferred talking points, we failed hopelessly. Our elephants veered in opposite directions and the gap between us grew. Yet, when we approached each other’s elephants (intuition) with handfuls of proverbial circus peanuts (genuine questions rooted in the desire to understand the other), our elephants would lean in and begin to walk in stride with each other.
Haidt puts it this way:
The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments.
Perhaps Haidt would agree with Hunter’s suggestion that change occurs not by building power and conquering others, but through faithful presence. That is, in the context of disagreement, the practices of proximity, curiosity, and long listening communicate an important commitment: “I’m here regardless of if we agree.” What I discovered in my journey with my dad is that as we made intentional decisions to live that truth, we grew certain of each other’s affection. That certainty, in turn, caused us to think more generously of one another. What’s more, it opened the pores of our souls and we found ourselves being transformed. Rather than committing to converting each other’s riders, we were learning to tame our own elephants.
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Random House, 2012. 59.
 Ibid, 76.
 McNerny, Samuel. “Jonathon Haidt and the Moral Matrix: Breaking Out of Our Righteous Minds,” ScientificAmerica.com.https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/jonathan-haidt-the-moral-matrix-breaking-out-of-our-righteous-minds/ (Accessed February 25, 2020).
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. 49.
 Ibid, 68