Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

In this current climate, people seem more divided than ever. Long suppressed beliefs are being exposed, and ugly truths about family members are being brought to light. Cutting family members out completely seems extreme, but I don’t want to ignore problematic views they hold. How do you handle family members who think pineapple on pizza is acceptable?

Sincerely,
Pizza Purist

Dear Pizza Purist,

We live in a time when everyone is a complex character—a marriage of great light and profound darkness.

We see this in the television that we watch. Ours is the age of the anti-hero. We empathize with Breaking Bad’s Walter White despite his choice to produce and peddle meth. We root for the titular character of Dexter even though he kills serially. We adore “the Gang” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with full recognition that they are indisputably garbage people. We love them not because they are good but for the simple virtue that they are cast as the protagonists.

Since the #MeToo movement, however, this mingled good and evil has osmosed through our screens and shown itself not only in our favorite characters but also in the flesh and blood actors that portray them, leaving us to ponder how we treat this disturbing duality when it has breached the fourth wall. Can I still fondly recall the nights I spent watching The Cosby Show on Nick At Nite? Can I lip sync to Kesha’s “TiK ToK” knowing that Dr. Luke sharpened the hook? Can I acknowledge the positive impacts of a politician who was photographed in black face or trust a judge who did something disastrous in his teens? These are the questions we must wrestle with today.

But the horror that piggybacks on skill and esteem does not contain itself to Hollywood and Washington D.C. Rather it strolls right into our living rooms and politely takes off its shoes. With technology placing people’s entire histories at our fingertips and renewed nationalism giving uncles and kindly neighbors plenty of opportunities to voice the worst in themselves, we can rely on so few people to be simple and innocuous these days.

And this queasy cocktail of honor and horror, as you of course know, trickles down even to you. As Caroline and C.S. Lewis reminded us last week, you could be something worthy of worship or something crawling out of a nightmare with equal ease.

The question then becomes “How do we hold it all?” How do we reconcile all the warring pieces of the people we love? And if we determine that the pieces simply don’t fit, how do we at least lay them all out side by side where they can be seen? How do we forgive them, and how do we acknowledge the things that it’s not our place to forgive them for? How do we chat about Claire’s tickling portrayal of Babette in the middle school’s production of Beauty and the Beast with them one moment, and then watch idly by as they insert a cheesy, isosceles piece of bread studded with acidic chunks of yellow into their dark and watering mouths?

To answer these questions and come to a place of peace, you will need to do something difficult: communicate.

Fortunately, I have divided this difficult task into a series of more manageable steps, so just remember to COLADA!

Create a Secure Environment: Before discussing something difficult with a loved one, make sure that you feel physically and emotionally secure. Do not confuse secure and comfortable. This discussion should make you uncomfortable, but you should not feel threatened. To carve out this tricky in-between space for yourself, let a few close friends know your plans and your apprehensions. Designate someone that you can call or eat a bag of marshmallows with after the conversation with your loved one in order to decompress.

Finally, select a good physical space for your conversation. Maybe you will feel most secure at your own kitchen counter where things are quiet and familiar and a warm mug of tea is always within reach. Perhaps you prefer meeting in her living room where you can dismiss yourself from the sofa and politely depart at any time. Or, in extreme cases, you may want to meet at a bustling coffee shop where the buzzing presence of witnesses may keep an agitated counterpart from raising his voice or hurling a large barbed fruit at your head.

If you feel completely comfortable or prohibitively panicked, growth will not happen, so take care in setting the stage.

Outline the Conversation: Invite your loved one to have a conversation with you and clearly outline what you want to discuss. By identifying the tension up front and expressing a desire to resolve it, you ensure that they will not feel ambushed and reduce the risk that they will become defensive. Quite simply, you allow your loved one the same advantage you have: time to find an appropriate space between comfort and panic. This can be as simple as saying “It makes me uncomfortable that you wear my bathrobe without asking. Could we sit down sometime to talk through it?” or “I’d really like to better understand your choice of pizza toppings. Would you be willing to tell me about it over a slice of pineapple upside-down cake?”

Listen to Understand: If you are not open to the possibility of being changed, do not begin a conversation. Ever. I prefer the phrase “being changed” to “changing your mind” because the latter tends to connote an entire flip-flop and whole-hearted embrace of another’s view. You may never embrace your friend’s fervid Guy Fieri fandom or appreciate pineapple on pizza, but if you listen with an honest intent to understand, you may at least find your loved one’s problematic preferences more tolerable.

For example, you may discover that pineapple was a universal symbol of hospitality during the Age of Discovery, prompting hotel concierge desks to adopt it as their official symbol and your loved one to include it on their Italian food discs as a sign of welcome to guests. Or you may learn that your loved one has chronically low levels of manganese or wants to support the Costa Rican economy or hates SpongeBob Squarepants and won’t rest until he’s homeless. Or maybe your loved one simply learned that wild pineapples are primarily pollinated by hummingbirds, and now every time they see a succulent yellow cube perched on a layer of mozzarella, they simply can’t help but smile.

See? Doesn’t thinking about hummingbirds make the reality of pineapple on pizza at least marginally more tolerable?

When your loved one has finally finished their explanation and you have finally finished your listening, paraphrase their words back to them and ask if you have understood fully. Keep re-wording things until they agree that you understand.

Ask Before Sharing: If you force your opinion on someone, it will never truly change them. Ever. Get your loved one’s permission before responding. Even if they only agree out of politeness, they will at least know that they have opted into your thoughts and will soften slightly. Additionally, if they feel that they have been heard well, they will be more inclined to return the favor.

And when sharing, focus on your needs and feelings. “Seeing Caribbean fruits on European starches makes me uncomfortable” prompts the listener toward empathy while “You are a traitor to pizza!” will only cause them to clam up.

Define the Relationship: Unless you determine your loved one belongs in solitary confinement or they say something bad about Beyoncé, you will probably continue to have some form of a relationship with them. However, that relationship doesn’t have to be identical to the relationship you had before the conversation. Be sure to clearly define the boundaries that will be required for you to continue having any relationship with them at all, and set consistent, cause-and-effect consequences if those boundaries aren’t respected.

For example, tell your nagging parents that you will go out to brunch with them on Sunday only if they allow you to pay for yourself and don’t bring up your student loan debt. Or tell your friend that you want to reconcile with her after she threw acid on your collection of American Girl Dolls but that you can only talk to her over the phone from a safe distance for the time being. Or tell your loved one that you would love to meet them for dinner once a week but that it just can’t be at Kauai Pie on 11th and Broadway anymore.

Agree to Follow Up: Relationships change, and boundaries can shift over time. (Just ask the South China Sea!) In fact, if you’ve had a productive conversation, your thoughts and feeling should continue to change afterwards just as your body continues to burn calories even after you’ve finished running or pogo-sticking. Schedule a time to follow-up with your loved one. They probably have more thoughts to share, too!

So, Pizza Purist, I hope that you are able to grapple with the wonderful, complex people in your life. I hope that you are able to sit down with them and patiently unwind and understand these complexities. And I hope that just maybe you can learn to appreciate these complexities even if you never untangle them.

Oh. And one final piece of advice: pesto pairs surprisingly well with pineapple on pizza!

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