I used to love the way I could be connected to the people in my life in the virtual realm. Now where once I was overjoyed to see the faces and stories of people, I feel a sinking sense of dread. Everyone seems to have been turned into a caricature of the real person they once were. I now have a collection of stereotypes, labels, and crazy faces where once I had people. Even people who are steering clear, keeping quiet, being “positive”, even they have become a “type of person”. I realize that I have turned into something else too. I am “one of those people”, whoever “those” people are. You are too. It’s not new – categorizing people – we always have, it’s our brain’s way of navigating the world. It’s just gotten harsher, more rigid, less nuanced, less fluid. We’ve flattened people out and then blown them up into some hyperbolic version of one aspect of themselves. We act as if no one can be more than one thing, as if people are not complex and complicated. And the idea that we can somehow co-mingle without cutting one another down to size seems to be some fantasy from a former life. It’s exhausting. It’s tempting to pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.
People on the internet are real people. These are real words, real accusations, real hurt, real danger, real politics. These things matter. The fact that they happen on the internet doesn’t make them less real or less meaningful. So I keep coming back and I keep seeing the lines become divides. It’s not getting any better. We need each other, but we just keep trying to defeat each other.
The chasms between people aren’t only getting wider, they’re getting more personal and harder to ignore. I’ve felt it, haven’t you? I’ve felt rage and frustration and disappointment and irritation. I’ve felt like maybe I don’t know people the way I thought, or maybe I don’t actually like people I thought I liked. I’ve felt like maybe I don’t want people like this in my life – my thoughts are harsh and unkind towards people I don’t want harsh and unkind thoughts towards. I hold my tongue (and feel guilty doing so) to maintain the peace even though I know we aren’t called to keep the peace, but to make it. But I don’t know how. I don’t know how to make peace when every word seems to be an act of war.
We’re not really listening to one another’s stories anymore. Or maybe we’re not really telling our stories anymore. We need our stories, we need other people’s stories. We need to see the threads of our humanity woven together. We need to take a breath and look one another in the face and recognize our shared existence.
And I wonder, what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? How can I contribute to building bridges instead of burning them? How do I live ethically, with a clean conscience? How do I go about my daily life and go to work and pay my bills and care for my family and raise my children and know these things about the world? How do I use my gifts? How do I answer my callings? How do I honor my convictions? How do I love my God and my neighbor and my enemy and my self? Is bearing witness to the heartache enough? Am I supposed to be doing something besides knowing the hurt of the world and hurting with it? I look to the sky all the time and ask “what would you have me do?” and then I fear that the answer will be something too hard and risky and heartbreaking and I try to forget that I even asked.
The truth is we are called to lay our lives down all the time and we never really want to do it. Or, at least I don’t. I try not to make comfort my idol, but it easily is. It’s not that my life is always comfortable, but just that it has an abundance of comfort in it compared to the discomfort of most people in the world. Even knowing this, I place my own comfort above what may be asked of me when my prayers are answered.
Honestly, I’m much better at being a peacekeeper than a peace maker. I don’t really like conflict. I basically do everything I can do avoid it at all costs.
At all costs, yes I heard myself say that too. Sometimes prayers are answered with a quietness, with a slow trickle, with just one syllable at a time. Sometimes we ask again to see if we’ll get the same response.
It’s uncomfortable to bind yourself to people that seem fundamentally different than you. But I think that’s what we’re going to have to do. It’s what I’m going to have to do and it’s what I’m going to ask other people to do.
For us to move forward, we must tether ourselves to one another – all of us. We must seek and foster connection to people we don’t believe we have any connection to.
Connection changes everything. We are protective of those we feel connected to. Our perspective regarding the people we are connected to is usually more generous and forgiving. We are able to rationalize and justify because we these people, because we understand and maybe even relate to their circumstances and experiences and so their choices do not seem foreign to us – they seem reasonable and understandable. On the other hand, with people we feel and perceive little or no connection to, we are harsher and more critical. We know less about the “why” that goes with their choice, and we care less too.
There’s a message going around that we must fiercely defend our moral ground, our principles, and our people and that we must do so at the expense of our other relationships. This has kept me silent for so long. I see the importance of not passively accepting inappropriate behavior, policy, and interactions and not blindly accepting the status quo as “good enough”. I believe in the responsibility we have to hold one another accountable, especially those in power. I acknowledge the need for new information and critical thinking and discussion. I just don’t think excessive sarcasm, unrelenting criticism, inflammatory “news” articles, and severing ties is the way to do this. They have their appeal and they certainly feel powerful in the moment, but in the long term, what good will come?
All I will have done is push someone farther into the other corner. All I will have done is alienate and degrade. To be completely uncompromising in regards to our morality sounds good, but in practice doesn’t always turn out good. To use wit and humor to make a point is not without merit, but to use it as poorly fashioned weapon with complete and utter disregard to collateral damage? Not so funny. What if the only thing we refused to compromise was love? What if we bore the burden of difficult relationships in the name of progress? What if I censored my commentary out of kindness to my mixed audience and saved my witty banter for people who appreciate it and won’t feel attacked by it? What if I considered someone else’s “why” with an equal validity and weight that I consider mine? What if there are no easy answers or quick fixes but instead a lot of messy trial and error until we figure out something that works?
What about our convictions? What about our callings? Our standards? Our principles? Do we abandon them, sacrifice them? No, we examine them. We hold them up to the light and let the light filter through them and do something with them.
Just like there are different kinds of respect (respecting a person’s humanity versus respecting their authority), there are different kinds of compromise (compromising due to laziness or lack of ethics versus compromising to come to a common ground or shared mutually beneficial resolution). We can respect one another and find compromise together in an effort to move our communities and society forward without respecting unworthy things and compromising our values.
So, If you can – hold on. Hold on to those people in your life who seem so different than you, whose ideas seem repulsive, naive, pointless, ill-informed. Hold on to those people whose behavior is below your standard, whose choices seem irredeemable, whose priorities and morals don’t fit with yours. Tether yourself to them so that you can’t move forward without bringing them with you, so that they can’t move backward without bringing you with them. So that you both begin to see that your fates intertwine. With you, bring your people, they will bring theirs; everyone’s outcomes are connected.
The truth is this: if this ship goes down, we all may not perish, but we all will suffer and that suffering will endure for generations to come. We have a responsibility to one another, to our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to create a legacy that lifts humanity higher.
I know some ties must be cut. Some relationships are too harmful and toxic to maintain. Go ahead and sever those ties.
But for the rest? Try holding on.