Most of my writing is purposefully measured. I equivocate on my opinion, not because I don’t have one, but because I believe we’re in a time of increasing divisiveness — and I choose not to add to that conversation. In a way, I think this post will end up feeling like an explanation or justification, but sometimes those are necessary. Sometimes you have to write in order to find out why you do the things you do.
There is so much condemnation right now that it can feel like doing anything but choosing a side and vehemently arguing it is the only way to stave off the anxiety. If you have a stance, the best way to never betray a doubt is to stop listening, to stick your fingers in your ears and go la, la, la.
I can’t be sure if history will look back on this time as an age of heightened disagreement. I think every generation believes their core struggles are more important or more heated than previous generations. Are we living in a more chaotic, violent, divisive time? Will history reflect back to us how divided we truly were? It can seem so, but all of us only have our own experience to compare it to. We can read historical accounts of other decades, but even those are colored with bias, their experiences only as good as their contexts.
Lately, I have found myself straddled between too many harshly-fought ideologies. Everyone thinks they are on the side of righteousness. So few people are able to see clearly past their own beliefs, their childhood upbringings, their socializations. Everyone is sanctimonious about something they feel is fundamentally ruining our world. Even our “enemies” believe in their own righteousness. Nobody wants to admit their own fallibility, their own doubt, their own anxiety.
Strong ideological beliefs, strong opinions and stances in general, do one thing very well: stave off the jarring realization that we are spinning endlessly in a black expanse, circling a ball of fire, completely unclear as to why we’re here, what this is all for, what lay beyond the billions (trillions?) of miles of darkness.
Doubt brings about anxiety, fear. To live without a strong sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s out there and what isn’t, why we’re here and not, is to live as if floating, weightless, unable to find a footing in a confusing world that will quickly swallow the weak.
So, while I have the same instinct to condemn, judge, lash out, type, type, type angry missives, I end up trashing the words that are inevitably blanketed in a subtle hypocrisy. I am intolerant to intolerance. Judgmental of people who judge. Not compassionate to the not compassionate. Hateful to those who hate. Raging at those with rage. Lacking empathy for those who lack empathy. I have forgotten that people do not respond to shame, insults, that if I want someone to see the path in which I feel is most compassionate toward the world, I must use my measured, calm words, to rid myself of the reactionary nature of my fear, to humble myself to the level of the doubt that we all have, but are terrified to show.
I find myself reverting back to the basics, of something we were all taught in grade school: it’s about showing not telling. I find that’s the most difficult aspect of humanity: to show the compassion, the kindness, the empathy, the restraint. Words are mostly empty without an action behind it. If I am unkind, intolerant, angry, but spouting off virtues to anyone who will listen, what kind of message am I sending?
If I want others to open their world enough to see the perspective of other people, that means I have to open my world enough to see, too, and not just to the perspectives of the people I readily agree with, but to expose myself uncomfortably to other opinions I am not in chorus with. If I don’t do any of these things, I should just shut my mouth and stop being so self-righteous, to stop being so certain in a world that is fundamentally uncertain.
Here’s what I think I know (and again, it’s the basics): Change happens in the middle. It happens when the two sides lay their admonishments and condemnations down long enough to come to an agreement, to think more of the greater good than of their personal, individual good. Making concerns known, fighting the good fight, is always a worthy endeavor, but I think most of us can agree that right now it does not seem like there is a good fight. There are dirty fights, insults flung and rages projected.
We are quick to label people hateful if we disagree with one, tiny thing they’ve said. We don’t seem to know the difference between criticism and ‘trolling,’ that there is a middle ground to react from. We are giving a lot of air and energy to people who are spitting out nonsense. You start repeating nonsense, critiquing it, pulling it apart, and suddenly you’ve legitimized the inane by giving it power.
Where is our patience? Our understanding? Have we lost these basic tenets, drunk on the ability to spit out online missives to faceless people? Have we truly lost decency, the tiny amount of kindness it takes to be measured and thoughtful and… rational? (I’m not condemning. I am honestly asking. These are not rhetorical questions.)
Even if it’s a liability to my professional life — writers live in the space of strong opinions — I am staying soft, gentle, open, understanding. That might mean my work is less popular, less divisive. Maybe I lack backbone, nerve. I’ve questioned that. There are many other writers who believe in sanctimony, who think a person without an unmovable stance is strong, but I just can’t live there. I can’t see the good it’s doing. Everyone on different sides screaming into a void without hearing each other, without proposing actionable solutions, without attempting to understand the other side of the argument seems to me fruitless, meaningless. I have never changed my mind out of shame. Never shifted an opinion by being condemned and insulted for what I think.
I will end this in the best way I know how, with a shrug and a humble dose of “I don’t fucking know.” Maybe this entire essay is bullshit, maybe the strong opinions win out in the end. Maybe shaming and condemning people does lead to change. Maybe being in the middle is a cop-out, an easy way to relinquish myself from responsibility.
I am learning and open to learning. I am tired of screaming, of the outrage that pervades every corner of the internet (and beyond). The only outcome I continue to see from the anger, the rage, is more of a divide between us all, more isolation, more projection, more fear; less and less of the things we ultimately want: compassion, tolerance, acceptance, empathy, forgiveness, understanding, love.
Because, let’s not forget, this is what we all want. The universal thread that ties us all together is our desire for love, for a moment of respite from the demons that live inside all of us. We all want the sliver of light in the expanse of darkness. We all want love: to be loved and to love. It’s the basics.
Maybe it’s time we go back to that, to restrain ourselves, to silence the first reaction and, instead, respond with the loving reaction, the one beyond that first wall of fear that lives to protect us. Maybe we can all take a breath, a pause, to look in each other’s eyes and see the sameness there, to see the way fear weaves itself into all of us, manifesting in different ways, but having ultimately the same mission: to divide us more. We are all one, even when we disagree. Even when we’re killing each other. Even when we’re condemning, screaming, battling.
We are one.