So, you might ask, how is “a climate so charged with disagreement” (as a friend described it this morning) helping make me a better person?
Well, it’s an answer eight years in the making.
Eight years ago, after Barak Obama was elected President of the United State of America, I started receiving very critical, sometimes absurdly critical, emails about his faults. Some friends assumed I thought like them.
But they were wrong. I had been very critical of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
What was so striking about these anti-Obama emails I started receiving was that they were SO much like the anti-Bush emails I’d been receiving. You could basically take the same emails and merely change the name from “Bush” to “Obama.”
I found this startling. How in the world could BOTH sides criticize the very same traits and actions – and be on different sides!
This realization started a course of self-reflection for me.
I knew I had to look more deeply at my knee-jerk reactions. I knew I had to consider why I found criticism, often mean criticism, to be so very . . . well, gratifying. Fun. How it made me feel a part of something, of being on the right team. Why I so enjoyed putting someone down. Being critical. Being plain old mean.
And so I did. I started looking at my reactions. Looking at their sources and their impact on my psyche, my thoughts and feelings. At how negativity and criticism felt so natural.
And I realized I wanted to change.
This past year has been one especially charged with disagreement. A go-to medium for expressing this has been Facebook.
I have seen so many friends and family make mean and hate-filled comments and share that kind of meme. Lots of that kind of meme. There is so much anger out there.
And it makes me wonder, “Is that same kind of anger in me?”
Because, you see, when I notice something outside of me, something that has an emotional charge like anger, I know it’s touching something that I’d rather not look at, not deal with, not try to understand about myself.
The comments I see daily on Facebook, comments made by friends and family, people I like, people with whom, face to face, I have had meaningful conversations, shared lovely times, enjoyed their company . . . . sometimes those comments are showing the very worst part of my friends and family.
But these friends and family seem unaware of this worst part of themselves.
Just as I am . . . until I step back and think, “How am I exactly like this?”
When I judge someone a hypocrite . . . how am I expressing hypocrisy in my life?
When I think someone is being mean and hate-filled . . . how do I act that very same way in my life?
When I see a knee-jerk, not thoughtful, not-compassionate reaction . . . how am I not thoughtful and compassionate in my reactions?
I can assure you, I can find those very reactions and emotions in my life!
They may not be visible, but they’re there.
I have hypocritical, mean and hate-filled, not-thoughtful, not-compassionate thoughts and feelings. Often those thoughts and feelings are the very first ones to emerge when I hear or read some comments or articles or memes.
But I don’t want to have this knee-jerk reaction.
I want to change.
I want to practice the Golden Rule.
I want to treat others the way I want to be treated.
Even if they don’t treat me that way first.
I’m not saying I won’t speak up for what I perceive as injustice. I will.
But I more often will speak up in person, face to face, after I’ve taken a deep look at myself.
When I am face to face, I can usually find a common ground with another – even if we seem very different.
Because we both are human.
Humans who have many of the same fears, the same weaknesses.
And many of the same hopes and dreams.
And although the Internet and Facebook and other social media have shown me the worst traits of humanity, these means of communication have allowed me to see my own worst sides – and have given me the opportunity to work on eliminating them.
They have also let me see some of the most hopeful traits of humanity as well.
I have quite a few friends on Facebook who think very differently from me, but we can still have an open discussion, not resort to name-calling, and can express our beliefs without worrying about being attacked.
That’s what I find most hopeful.
Yes, I’ve used the “unfollow” button a lot these past few months. Quite a few people have made their thoughts and emotions very clear through mean and hate-filled and unsourced comments and and memes. They don’t want a discussion. They want to say, “THIS. I am right. You’re stupid if you disagree.” So I have chosen not to be subjected to that negativity. Many of them think they are open to discussion, but they never concede a point. Ever. I choose not to be subjected to the negativity that reigns on their Facebook walls (except when I need to be reminded of their viewpoints and do some more work on those worst parts of myself. That’s one of the best parts of Facebook, that I get to choose).
The Facebook friends I choose to follow may not agree with me, but they post substantive articles, make thoughtful, reasoned comments, are willing to discuss. They are less “tribal” (to quote another Facebook friend), less concerned with being on the “right” team.
They are actively helping make me a better person.
And so are the others. But I can only take small amounts of negativity, of meanness, of hypocrisy. Because I still need to work on those parts of myself! So I am only willing to venture into that mud when I feel strong enough to look closely at myself.
As the friend I quoted at the beginning of this blog post also said, this is a practice. I won’t change overnight. Heck, I’ve still got a lot of changing to do even after eight years of realizing that what I notice is what I need to work on and change about myself.
But there IS progress in my thoughts and feelings. I have fewer knee-jerk reactions. And when I do have one, I can usually step back and think, “Where did that come from?” And with that awareness, I can choose another thought, another emotion.
That of compassion.
Compassion for the person who evoked my reaction.
And compassion for myself.
Especially compassion for myself. Because if I beat myself up, change is harder.
We’re all humans with the same human struggles.
We all need to change, to improve, to become more kind and loving and compassionate.
And we all need compassion.
No matter our politics.