Speaking, Hearing, and a little humility in humanizing others

I reopened Facebook for the first time in over a year. I shut it down to work on a novel, but I won’t say I wasn’t excited to escape the vitriol that overwhelms our public forum in an incredibly divided America. I’d been sick of seeing it; I’d also been guilty of it, too.

Five minutes into scrolling through those blue-and-white pages, it was like being reminded, “Oh yeah – this is the same place I left behind,” though probably a bit more cluttered and starting to feel kind of gunky, like Myspace before Facebook came along. What happened to the old minimalist Facebook of yesteryear?

One of the first posts I saw was a Christian friend demanding drug testing before people can receive food stamps. I thought about posting, “Yeah! Jesus didn’t care for sinners! Take their food away!” But I knew my sarcasm was too harsh; it wouldn’t be heard, and it prompted the very vitriol I’d grown sick of. There’d be something hypocritical about posting that. Even the truth can be hypocritical depending on how it’s delivered.

I thought maybe instead I’d give a light nudge: “I wonder what a Christian response should be to this issue?” Challenge with a question; that’s a bit Socratic and so there’s a good to that, right? But something feels icky to me the way Socrates “stings like a gadfly; births like a midwife.” While that’s a powerful way to teach and an emotive way to learn, something about it is manipulative. It reminds me of a teacher I had once who I loved to death, but I always thought it strange that after tearing apart a student’s paper, she would hand that student a stuffed animal to cry into saying, “You’ll do better next time.” If it’s manipulative but it works, can it still be moral? Behind my “light nudge,” a push to ask, “What would Jesus do,” I was armed with more questions intended to guide and manipulate: Did ancient Rome – in the first century – fail to feed the hungry? Were Jesus and his disciples wrong to glean? Is drug addiction a disease or is it just an illegal action? If it were a disease, would addicts be victims? If addicts were victims, what does it mean to take their food away for a disease they have? Is it right to take away food from a hungry child whose mother is a victim of her addiction? All good points hiding behind those questions, but that didn’t seem like the right way to go.

A third option was to say nothing. Let’s all just be agreeable, can’t we? We can sit around and just sing kumbaya. We can agree to disagree, and then the whole world will get along, wars will end, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns – finally! Without being flippant, I do think there’s a decent argument to be made in recognizing that we won’t change our world over a Facebook conversation or an internet meme – or a blog. I wholeheartedly agree with that. And yet to simply be agreeable, to only surround ourselves with those of like minds – our own convenient filter bubbles – while seething underneath about the folks who live in bubbles so different from our own, and we aren’t being true to ourselves in that. Or to others.

So what do we do? If our goal is to convince others we’re right or to just agree to disagree, either of those seem to be the easy way out to me. In our divisive society, it can be tempting to stir the pot. In our increasingly relativistic society, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and say it doesn’t matter. Regardless of which route we take, whether we’re selling truth or saying there isn’t any, maybe the best approach is to let go – just a little – of whichever end of the spectrum we might find ourselves in. What happens if we start to ask, how do we maintain being true to our own perspective but also willing to let go of that perspective just enough to hear the mind of someone else? I don’t have an answer to that question. But maybe those are the kinds questions we should ask – the ones we don’t think we have an answer to already.

And so, to me, this was never really about whether the government should provide food stamps to drug abusers. It was more about a need to humanize the folks who might think that way. They’re the very same folks who I’ve known to be incredibly loving and, in some ways, far more charitable than me. Their opinion doesn’t rob them of that good – or make me better than them. I hope, not only throughout social media, but in all walks of life, I’d seek to humanize everybody a little, especially the folks I so staunchly disagree with. But I also hope others will learn to do the same. There’s a time and place to speak and be heard, though I suspect the latter is always the greater good. But there’s a place for the former, too, and I recognize it can be really difficult to determine how to walk that line. Like I said, I don’t know how we do that, how best to go about it; I just think trying is a message we’ve gotta promote – to seed a little bit of humility into ourselves. I’ll start with me first.

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