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Child Cages, Moral Decay, and Appalling Silence

“I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello friend,

What has been happening at America’s southern border these last couple of months–the separation of immigrant children from their parents and the warehousing/caging of these children–is morally reprehensible. If you don’t think so, I am not sure what I can even say to you. So I am just going to assume that if you are reading this, you have a conscience and at least a shred of decency. Fair enough?

I know that, like every other topic that involves our current President or even anything remotely political, there is likely to be an immediate raising of your walls and a strong desire to withdraw completely from the discussion. I get that. We have developed a poisonous atmosphere when it comes to political dialogue in this country. People look forward to a political debate the way they look forward to a root canal.

With that said, I would like to submit to you that this particular discussion is NOT a political one but is instead a moral one (though I admit that I look at politics as an expression of one’s morals). I mean, we are talking about human rights violations. Do you really want to belong to the group that says, “Sure, we approve of caging babies!” No matter how conservative you are, I don’t believe that is who you are. So let’s take the Republican and the Democrat out of the topic. Let’s just make it about your moral compass, your sense of decency. Okay? So, engage! Just engage as a human. Please.

The thing about this topic of child separation that–like so many other topics–I find so fascinating is not so much its rightness or wrongness (that seems obvious) but rather how much people are willing to stand up against something that runs counter to their professed morals. That is, who says out loud and in public, “This is wrong! We can’t allow this!” and who sits by in silence and allows the wrong to continue?

Maybe I am so enthralled by this concept because I enjoy studying History and, in particular, the many atrocities people have committed against each other, things that seem unspeakable to us from the distance of a textbook and a different era. I like thought experiments such as, “What would I have done if I were a German citizen during the Holocaust?” or “How engaged would I have been if I lived during the Civil Rights Movement?”

I think we all like to imagine ourselves as stepping up and doing something noble in these types of circumstances, speaking in the town square or aiding an escape or marching for justice. But would we really? We can’t know for sure, of course, but something tells me that the best indicator of how we would have acted then is how we act now when our core morality is publicly assaulted. Do we rise to speak and act, or do we swallow our tongues and sit on our hands?

It has been argued that we are in the midst of one of these public assaults daily in this era in America–when lies and threats to civil liberties from the highest offices in our government have become the norm–and that it is our obligation to step up every single time and say, in some manner, “That is simply not true,” or, “No, that is unjust.” There is honor and integrity in that. Of course, that becomes exhausting, and most of us begin to become more selective in our battles (which is why a constant barrage of untruths and incivilities has turned out to be an effective tactic for those employing it). For the sake of our personal sanity, we tend to tackle only the most egregious.

In my eyes, at least, we had one of these egregious public assaults last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the large and violent rally of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis. Many otherwise-silent people felt compelled to speak up and say something to the effect of, “This is disgusting. This is un-American. I oppose this.” Many, but not all. Maybe not even most.

In recent weeks, we have had our latest example of an egregious public assault on our morals with the current administration’s enforcement of the “zero tolerance” policy and ensuing separation of children of all ages from their families and caging them in warehouses and tent cities. Stories of the traumas of these children–and their parents–have been out there for weeks and have multiplied recently as public outrage has grown.

I was heartened to see, after a long silence on the matter, some prominent members on both sides of the political spectrum finally speak out on the matter, naming it out loud, as I did above, as a moral matter, not a political one. Laura Bush, Franklin Graham, and the Pope definitely stood out on my radar, voices I might have otherwise not expected to hear on an ordinary “political” issue. To me, that was essentially the signal to open the floodgates for all decent people to speak out against this cruelty. Some did. But so many still didn’t.

What gives?

I fully admit that I sometimes get angry when I read a post–whether written by someone in my social media community or just shared by them–that I deem to be callous and/or ignorant. But as awful as I might find someone else’s opinion to be, I actually appreciate that they are speaking up about something that matters to them.

I understand that everyone is not on social media and not everything we do shows up there (though most days it feels like it!). Some people have these important conversations with their friends and family. Some people call their representatives and ask them to vote one way or the other. I love this and encourage everyone to do the same.

But let’s be real. Most people share a lot of their ongoing life stories with their social media “family.” I see their meals, their outfits, their product reviews, their new haircuts, their pets, their kids and everything their kids do, their awards, their Go Fund Me appeals, their date nights, their injuries, their friends, their concerts, their businesses, their pleas for extra prayers, their favorite shows, their families, their religious celebrations, their break-ups, the deaths of their loved ones, and just about everything else I can imagine. They expose themselves to me. They reveal to me who they really are (or at least who they want me to believe they are). And I love that they do. It is nice to feel like I have gotten to know new people and reconnected with so many others that I had lost contact with before I joined the Facebook and Twitter world.

But it is exactly this vast volume of information running the gamut of the human experience that I get from so many people on social media that makes it all the more disturbing to me when we have a moral crisis such as Charlottesville or the caged children at the border and I don’t hear a peep from them.

Not a small personal note expressing some disgust or outrage. Not a share of an informative article. Nothing from their spiritual leader. Just nothing.

It’s very disheartening to me. It makes me question myself about whom I have allowed into my life. It forces me to wonder whether the silence is due to callousness, cluelessness, or fear. Or something else?

And I’ll take anything, really. I even willingly accept the “This is not who we are,” statement (even though, unfortunately, it is who we are. Selling slave children away from their mothers. Removing Native American children from their families and sending them to “boarding schools,” often never to see their families again. Japanese internment camps during World War II. Historically speaking, America is clearly not above caging children.), because I think people mean it aspirationally. That is, as, “This is not who I wish for us to be, now or in the future.” I’ll take it. It’s something.

I think part of why so many don’t speak up against injustice is that it opens up a conversation that they probably don’t want to have. Most of us are so uncomfortable bringing up issues of race, class, and religion (and politics, of course). I think that part of that is simply insecurity from being out of practice (because we just don’t talk about it in America), but I also think there is a part of it (possibly unconscious) that is about our guilt from either ourselves or our ancestors being complicit in the worst kinds of atrocities in our history, such as the ones I just mentioned. We avoid conversations about current unpleasantness to avoid conversations about past unpleasantness. We just don’t dare.

But I am here to say that it is time to speak up. You don’t have to get “political.” You don’t have to name names. You just have to, when something is happening in your world that is so morally repulsive that it makes you want to cry or scream or reach a hand out to help, say something.

Just say something. Account for yourself as a moral being. That’s all.

I will.

How about you? Are you willing to speak up when something in your country goes beyond the limits of your moral compass? Open up your journal and explore your responses in times of moral crisis, including our current catastrophe with children at the border. Historically–prior to this current issue–have you found yourself compelled to speak up and/or take action in the face of a policy or action that you found to be unconscionable? What compelled you? An unjust war? A policy regarding civil rights issues? A particular debate or Supreme Court decision, such as abortion or same-sex marriage? The cumulative effect of a particular politician’s character (e.g. racist and misogynistic) and policy positions (e.g. doesn’t believe in climate change)? Police brutality? The Women’s March? The Charlottesville white supremacists? Something else? If none of those things moved the needle far enough for you to rise up and speak, is there anything that you can imagine pushing you to that point? Okay, how about this recent issue of forcibly taking children from their parents and holding them in detention centers? How egregious is this according to your moral code? Enough to say something? Have you shared anything on social media about it? Have you communicated your outrage–if you have it–to friends and family members? To members of Congress? If not, why exactly not? If you belong to a religion or spiritual community, what do your leaders have to say about this matter? Have they spoken up and condemned the policy during services? Did they speak out against racism during Charlottesville? If they did not, what do you think it says about your spiritual community in terms of its role in your moral life? What do you think about people who don’t stand up in the face of what is plainly wrong? Would you trust them to stand up for you if you were being bullied? What does that say about the level of trust you ought to give them with your heart? Whether or not you are one to speak out against injustice, what do you think are the biggest reasons people–even “good people”–choose silence in times when silence only emboldens the oppressor and the bully? In the end, are any of those reasons good enough? At what point is silence simply spinelessness? Have you been there? How recently? Did you regret it later? When it comes to the human rights violations occurring with the traumatized children at the border, how do you suppose History will judge people who responded like you did to the situation? Are you content with that? Leave me a reply and let me know: What does it take to get you to speak up?

Make your heart feel big,

William

P.S. If you know anyone who might be well served to consider these questions, please share this letter with them. All rise!

P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of exploring your inner world, I think you would appreciate my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That is Your Truth. It’s available at most online retailers.

Can We Talk? Opening Your Mind To Broaden Your Horizons

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” –Frank Zappa

Hello friend,

How many times, in the wake of an event that has spurred divisiveness and dragged out the worst sides of politics and social media trolls, have you actually struck up a thoughtful, deep-diving, and respectful discourse with someone from the other side of the fence?

Never, right?

In those moments when everyone’s nerves are raw and the sense is that people who disagree with you are evil at worst and foolish at best, it is usually best to avoid the interaction altogether. You know that if you get into it, you are probably going to let your anger get the best of you and say something you will regret (or should regret), leading to a spiral of hurt feelings and walls up, with no one hearing—much less considering—anything the other side is saying (or shouting).

It is even worse on social media, where, if you share your thoughts—or someone else’s video or blog or article that makes your points better than you can—the trolls come to pounce with every snarky meme, crude oversimplification, and attack on your character that you can imagine. That typically leads to a series of angry retorts from both sides and a growing divide between. More walls.

It begins to feel useless—even unhealthy–to ever say anything about any topic of importance to anyone at all.

I mean, sure, it is nice to talk about issues that matter to you with people who agree with you. They tell you that you are right, maybe even give your main points a little more clarity and nuance. You come away from the discussion with even greater conviction. But how much difference are you really making? Are you enlightening any of those who are ignorant on the other side? Are you changing any new minds, making progress toward that critical mass of people who will make the greater societal change you are hoping for?

While the choir definitely needs to hear the sermon, too, at some point the message needs to travel beyond the thick chapel walls.

It was with this frustrating but ordinary reality that I went to sleep on Sunday night. When I awoke in the early hours of Monday morning, there was a message on my phone from my sister, who had just arrived in Las Vegas with her family the day before, letting me and the rest of our family know that she was safe. I quickly got up to speed on the mass shooting, the numbers for which were updating as I read.

So began the typical week in America when something like this happens, as it so often does. First it is the “thoughts and prayers” moment, immediately followed by—or joined with—people jockeying for position in the gun control debate.

Of course, it never goes anywhere. I already reminded you how public debate happens. Anyway, after a few days of anger, insults, and trolling, our attention wanders to the next hot topic. But in those few days, things are definitely tense and combative. The number of articles written and posts shared spikes, as does the animosity between the two sides and their propensity to dig their heels in and refuse to listen or engage in anything resembling productive dialogue.

America. 2017.

It was right in the thick of this national drama—and my personal frustration about it—that I happened to get a private message from an old school friend whom I had, until a recent, brief contact, hardly heard from in twenty years.

I had, on Monday afternoon, shared two articles on Facebook that I thought were important and helpful thoughts about this moment in our country, good fodder to journal about or discuss with those who are willing to engage this thorny topic in this difficult time. The first one shared grief about the Las Vegas massacre and also bridged into why it is important to again begin to raise the issue of tighter gun laws. The second article was purely informational, a series of charts and graphs explaining America’s unique relationship with guns and gun violence.

I am, as I have made clear many times in these letters and on social media, quite liberal on most of the thorny issues we face—or fail to face, as the case may be—in this country. So I am sure that those two pieces I shared on Facebook on Monday afternoon came as no surprise to my old friend from school.

No, the surprise belonged to me. It was Monday evening when the private message showed up on my tablet. He explained that he had read the articles that I had shared that day and wanted to better understand where a guy like me was coming from so he could have a broader perspective. He gave a little personal history on living in areas with different levels of gun violence and a brief explanation of his gun control perspective, which, you may have guessed, did not match mine. He reiterated that he was merely looking to gain perspective.

I was blown over. Honestly, I had to read his short note over a few times to be sure of what I had just read. I know it sounds dramatic, but I was truly shocked. Delighted, but shocked.

I suppose it is a sad commentary on us all that the occurrence of someone from one political/philosophical bent approaching someone from another (“opposing”) side and asking simply if the “opponent” would better inform the questioner about the opponent’s view so that the questioner could see the issue more clearly would seem such a rarity as to cause shock. But, as I said, “America. 2017.” Here we are.

I, of course, jumped on the opportunity. I knew the potential dialogue was fraught with landmines and that we both might end up cursing the other for being so foolish as to not accept our arguments and blindly convert our positions on gun control, but I was too giddy at the possibility of this rare gem in the form of a genuine exchange of different ideas and opinions.

I stayed up past my bedtime that night, all riled up by both the topic and the chance to open a mind. I wrote out my basic arguments on the issue, then passed on a letter I wrote to you about the topic a few years ago. The next morning I happened upon a video that I thought clarified my perspective a bit and passed that on. Later in the morning, he sent along a couple of notes in response to my points and tried to lay out his position for me in greater detail. The next day, when I finally had time to write down my thoughts—as you know, I have a lot to say—I sent a long retort, explaining how his argument did not seem logically consistent and putting in a few more angles to plug my own position. Finally, he attempted to clarify his position again.

The entire exchange took place over 48 hours, from Monday to Wednesday evening. And believe me, lots of energy was expended, both emotionally and in terms of time and effort. Because I must admit, I was totally into it the entire time. I was invested in learning more about his perspective, so I eagerly awaited his responses each time. And I spent a lot of thought on how to best express my own perspective in a way that was thorough and respectful. I was clearly engaged, that made it all the more rich and meaningful.

And amazingly, I did not get angry during the exchange. I definitely scratched my head a few times trying to make his view seem logically consistent. Maybe I thought he was in denial about some things and short-sighted on others. But I understood where he was coming from. On the receiving end, I admit that I didn’t especially like it when he referred to people who share my views as “infantile, childlike, and naïve,” but I let that slide off me—which is very unlike me—because it was also very informative about his position, which he was being honest about. It didn’t feel like he was trying to deliver me a personal cheap shot. The whole vibe of the exchange was very genuine: passionate but not offensive, honest but not cutting.

And even if I did get worked up in the process, it was a small price to pay for the broadening of my horizons and a greater sense of compassion for others who don’t share my worldview. I was–and still am–deeply grateful for the trade.

I have wondered, in the few days since the dialogue concluded, if we could have had such an open, authentic exchange on such a sensitive topic—especially given the proximity to the tragedy—in a face-to-face setting and still been both respectful and heard. Would we have, in our quest to get our points across in as rapid an exchange as conversation usually is, been talking over each other and been triggered to anger, personal attacks, or caricatures of the other’s view? I am not so confident.

I usually think of the Internet—especially the Comments section of posts—as the place where people are at their most cowardly, hiding behind their keyboards to deliver cheap shots, knowing they do not have to see the face of the person whom they are trying to hurt. But in this case, I think the distance between us helped in that it gave us time to form our thoughts more clearly before we sent them, or at least allowed us to send along a clarification (or supporting articles, videos, etc.) later. It felt more thorough than a regular face-to-face or phone conversation this way. And obviously, I think the fact that we are old friends and have good will toward each other helped to keep it from devolving into the kind of shallow, crass exchanges you see online.

When I think of the exchange as a whole, the word that comes to mind is refreshing. Maybe I had lost too much faith in my fellow humans, but I simply didn’t imagine myself having that kind of dialogue this week (or any week, honestly). As I mentioned, the initial request itself floored me. Even had the discussion gone nowhere of great interest, just that simple request for better understanding—“Help me gain perspective” is my new favorite phrase—would have been enough to restore my faith in humanity for a little while. The fact that the dialogue that followed this beautiful plea was fruitful is all the more refreshing. I wish such a mind-opening gift upon everyone. I know I am up for another!

How about you? Are you open-minded enough to have a meaningful exchange about a sensitive issue with someone who comes at it from a totally different perspective? Open up your journal and consider the degree to which you are willing to both share your own thoughts respectfully with an “opponent” and also give serious respect and consideration to their views, building a true dialogue together rather than a fight. Which of the big issues are you most passionate about and get your blood boiling the most when you listen to the other side’s claims? Gun control? Racism? Health care? Immigration? Climate change? Abortion? Income inequality? The list goes on. Which ones rattle your cage the most? How well-versed are you in your side’s arguments? Well enough to put up a good fight in a debate if necessary? Are you eager to put your views out there and engage debate, or do you shy away from giving your opinions, even if they are strongly held? What is your typical reaction when you hear someone from the other side of your hot-button issue give their opinions? Do you get fired up immediately? Do you get so agitated that it would be difficult to engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue on the topic? Have you ever been approached by someone who thoroughly disagrees with you on a thorny issue and would like to challenge your beliefs? If so, how did you respond and where did it lead? Has it ever ended well? It is my thoroughly biased belief that people who keep a journal have stronger foundations for their beliefs because, through their journal writing, they have considered the topics more thoroughly than people who don’t journal. I am not saying that we journal writers are more passionate about our opinions or even always correct, just that we are more likely to have logically consistent positions that can be expressed clearly. Do you agree? (Here’s a hint: you have to write one to find out the answer!) Have you ever had your view of humanity refreshed by a single exchange? Have you ever had a situation like mine and been engaged by someone who knowingly disagrees with you but who simply wants to broaden her view of the world? Would you prefer to do it face-to-face and all-at-once or through writing over time? How about the flip-side: have you ever approached an “opponent” with the humble request, “Help me gain perspective.”? On which issue would you most like to submit that request? From my experience this week, I would highly recommend it. Do you dare? Leave me a reply and let me know, Can you open your heart and mind enough to engage an opposing perspective with respect?  

Blossom and grow,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Dialogue is good!

The Treason of Silence

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello friend,

I ask you today to open your mind to a thought that ought to be very uncomfortable for you.

But first, I want you to conjure up a specific image in your mind—you can choose from the many that have made their way through the various media in the last week—of one or two of the torch-bearing, Confederate-flag-and-swastika-waving bigots who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend.

Mine is the face of Peter Cvjetanovic, clad in his white polo and styled hair, holding his Tiki Torch and screaming next to the other young, white, male torch-bearers (you know, the one who, when outed this week, said, essentially, “I’m not the racist everyone is making me out to be.” Poor guy.)

But you choose your own. There are many photos and videos to choose from, and the cast of characters is huge. But the images seem to reveal some commonalities. They are violent. They are angry. They are organized. And they are ready to break your country into pieces.

Now here is the thought I want you to entertain: Maybe you are a bigger problem for us than they are.

I know, I know, it sounds farfetched. And trust me, I am as hypersensitive as they come and cannot stand to be accused of anything. So I feel you. But bear with me.

You might be worse for your country right now—and for human rights, social progress, Justice, etc.—than those neo-Nazis and white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville last weekend.  

How could that even be possible?

When you are actually in a moment of history, you rarely understand its significance. In the first few years of The Civil Rights Movement, there was nothing called “The Civil Rights Movement.” It was just people like Rosa Parks acting for justice. Only later did we recognize the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a seminal moment in The Civil Rights Movement.

It seems to me that we are in quite a moment right now. I can’t say for sure how this will all look fifty or a hundred years from now and what the history books will say, but I have a suspicion that this era will be in there and that we will be judged for our roles in it.

What urges me to ask this difficult question of you is none other than Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Dr. King is on my short list of greatest heroes. He wrote and spoke so many words that have touched me in my deepest places. But the ones that seem to come back over and over to haunt and inspire me are his passages about silence and the role of “good people” in the culture of injustice that has defined America since its inception.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” 

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’” 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

“To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it.” 

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” 

When silence is betrayal. The common definition of treason is “betrayal of one’s country.” But what about a betrayal of humankind in general? A betrayal of Goodness? Of Justice?

You see, when you are crusading for Justice, your biggest enemy is not the unjust but the indifferent.

Let me unpack that. If I am a leader tasked with combatting racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-Muslim sentiment, you name it, the ones who do the most damage to my cause are not those guys in Charlottesville marching with their flags and beating people up. Those guys are the low-hanging fruit; they are easy to address and easy to rally against. They are deplorable and I wish they were gone, yes, but their kind of damage can be measured and contained. They are a broken bone—badly broken–not a cancer. No, the group that has the potential to quietly, casually allow disease to spread through my people are the silent, “good people” who say nothing when the bone-crusher rises up at our doorstep.

These “good people” can’t ever be singled out for using the “N-word” or openly discriminating against the Muslim family down the street. They may or may not have voted for the candidates who support tolerance and inclusivity, but they didn’t rally against them. They are always outwardly kind and respectful. So, what makes them the great “tragedy,” as Dr. King referred to them?

Their “appalling silence” when it comes to defining moments and matters of importance.

By the end of last weekend, you might have known that the events in Charlottesville were a big deal by the amount of media coverage they were getting, but I surely couldn’t tell by the number of my social media community who were speaking out against these people and their disgusting causes. Nearly everyone seemed to be just viewing it from a distance, as though it were a new television series and not a moral crisis point for our entire nation. By the end of the weekend, I was more disturbed by that “appalling silence” of the “good people” that are my social community than by the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

I suddenly became very active on Facebook. I am typically the guy who looks at Facebook a lot but doesn’t post things on my personal page very often. Well, I started sharing and posting about Charlottesville and implored my community to speak up to their communities about it, stressing that silence communicates support for the white supremacists. I made a point of praising anyone who used their voice in any way—a personal post, a share, etc.—to address the issue. But the more I scoured my Timeline for people’s reflections, the more the silence became deafening to me. (I recognize that several days after the event, it started to become more fashionable to change profile pictures to “I stand against racism” and such, and I don’t wish to diminish those small steps. But my point remains.)

This is not a controversial topic. This is not something that a Democrat friend should think one way on and therefore a Republican friend should think the opposite way. Right? I mean, I know that since the election, almost everyone in my feed has become gun-shy about saying anything “political” in their posts for fear of stirring up another hateful argument and grating on all the raw nerves that the very long campaign process exposed. But, despite what some leaders might say about “many sides,” I think we can all agree that there is one side of this deal that is despicable. Saying so should not risk sparking a debate.

So, why the silence?

Honestly, is it not a big enough topic to raise your blood pressure? Does it just not move the needle for you? WHAT COULD BE BIGGER??? Are Liberty, Equality, and Justice not quite enough to get you to clear your throat and throw out a few words? Just a few.

If not now, when?

Seriously, if you haven’t gotten up in your social media community, family and friend community, spiritual community, or any other community this week and said that you disagree with the Charlottesville marchers and that you stand with the people they are trying to oppress, then I honestly don’t know what to do with you?

It scares me to have to wonder what is in your heart on this matter, especially when speaking out against hate would appear to come with no risk involved.

Your silence portrays, at best, indifference, and that indifference enables this type of nonsense to be normalized.   Are you really in favor of normalizing Hate?

The topic demands that you stand up and take a position. Neutrality is not an option on something so big and so potentially damaging.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I wasn’t even going to write this week because I have been preparing for and on vacation. The thing that drove me to carve out the time was the very title itself: The Treason of Silence. I just know in my bones that this moment in time is our moment of reckoning—individually and collectively as a country—and that History will judge us accordingly. As much as “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people” truly does appall me, I know that my own silence on this matter might be my biggest regret. I choose to speak.

How about you? How have you chosen to react to the dramatic events in Charlottesville in recent days? Open up your journal and justify your level of action or inaction, your reasons for speaking up or being silent. Perhaps it is best to begin with how the events—the marches, the swastikas, the violence, the death—made you feel on the inside. What was your visceral reaction? Stunned? Appalled? Overjoyed? Disturbed? Relieved? Angered? Saddened? Indifferent? How would you describe both the feeling and the depth of it? How much did the images move your needle? If you said you were clearly affected by them—and especially if you felt that what was happening was terribly wrong–what did you do about it? Did you talk to anyone? Share on social media about it? Anything? If you did share, how long did it take you? What made you wait? Is this kind of open bigotry and hate becoming normalized? Is it now so normal that you didn’t—or almost didn’t—think to even say anything? Did you have anything to lose by speaking up—any social backlash, such as loss of friends or potentially angry debates with family members? If you had nothing to lose and still didn’t speak up, what do you think that says about your values and your character? Is the answer to that question a bitter pill to swallow? So, how about Dr. King’s sentiments? When evil is done and you are silent about it, are you an accomplice in that evil? Who is the bigger problem for our society today and the bigger barrier to eliminating the scourge of bigotry and hate: the thousands of people carrying the Confederate flags, shouting racial slurs, and beating people, or the millions of people who enable those thousands with their silence and indifference? Are you one of the thousands, one of the millions, or one of the ones who spoke up? Are you satisfied with your response? Did it match the level of the offense? If not, what will it take to get you to deliver a response worthy of the situation in the future? If this isn’t a disturbing enough event for you, what would be? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you one of the “good people” who have remained appallingly silent?

Rise to the occasion,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. We all need to do some soul-searching on this one.

Where is Your Outrage? Getting Angry in an Apathetic World

“If you aren’t outraged, then you just aren’t paying attention.” –Lisa Borden, The Alphabet of Avoidance

Hello friend,

This week I watched the newly-released police videos of the murder of Philando Castile and its immediate aftermath. I watched as Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, sat handcuffed and distraught in the backseat of a police cruiser with her four-year-old daughter. The little girl pleaded with her to stop screaming because she didn’t want her mother to “get shooted” too. At the end of the heartbreaking video, she cries to her mother, “I wish this town was safer. I don’t want it to be like this anymore.” I swallowed hard and wiped the tear from my eye. Then I got angry. Really angry. I wanted to scream, but felt like I couldn’t produce one loud enough to represent the extremes of my outrage.

After last Friday’s not guilty verdict for the officer who fired seven bullets into Castile as he sat seat-belted in his car next to his girlfriend and her daughter, I was devastated. Just after my wife told me the news, I had to pick up my kids from camp and explain to them why Mommy would be crying when we got home. We had to have another difficult discussion about race and injustice in America, including our own city, where the murder took place. It is depressing to be forced to have these conversations over and over with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old.

I had been thinking since the verdict about this sad fact of racial injustice in American life and how it pains me that my kids need to know this stuff so young. But seeing this new video of that poor little four-year-old child not only witnessing a murder of a loved one by a police officer but also being cognizant of how little it would take for them to kill her black mother, too, well, that just takes it to a whole other level. As I said, it broke me into tears watching it.

But my heartbreak morphed quickly into its natural successor: outrage.  

I was really, really mad. Mad that Castile’s murderer got off. Mad that this woman had to sit in handcuffs when she had just witnessed her boyfriend murdered and she wasn’t charged with or suspected of any crimes. Mad that this innocent little child had to witness both Castile’s murder and her mother’s humiliation. And so damn mad that we live in a world where that kind of scene—from the phony, racially-profiled traffic stop all the way to the Not Guilty verdict—is commonplace for people of color, just a regular part of what it means to be black in America. It is such a damn shame on us.

But what makes me more outraged as I simmer down from all that other stuff is that this whole thing—which was actually quite famous due to Reynolds’ Facebook Live video capturing Castile bleeding out while his murderer’s gun was still pointed at him—doesn’t seem to even cause an eyebrow to be raised for most people outside of the black community. Nothing!

We cry about it at my house and have long talks with my children, and then I write and share about it on Facebook to both educate and grieve communally. As I scroll through my Newsfeed, though, there is barely a mention of it.

Some of my black friends and a couple of my white friends—literally a couple—that live in the city of the killing share their sadness and disgust. Otherwise, crickets. Silence.

That silence, of course, chaps my hide even more. When I shared on Facebook the video of the handcuffed Diamond Reynolds and her weeping daughter in the back of the police car, along with a call to action, I got a grand total of five acknowledgements in the next 24 hours. Not comments—none of those—but Likes or Sad Face or Angry Face. Five! I bet I could get on social media right now and type “I love chocolate ice cream!” and get twice that number of responses in an hour. Apathy.

I am outraged by the lack of outrage!!!

No wonder most black people in America feel like they can’t trust white people: we do nothing but let them down over and over again. And not just by killing them and getting away with it, but mostly by our absolute apathy about such injustice. It’s not the killers that are so hurtful; it’s the vast silent mass of passive condoners of the killing who act as a rubber stamp of its approval. Our collective silence does more damage than that officer’s bullets.

I just don’t get why everyone is not more upset by this.

Why do you have to be black or have black loved ones to feel outraged by injustice toward black people? Or disabled people. Or poor people. Or LGBTQ people. Or whatever! What makes us so unfeeling, so uncaring about stuff that doesn’t happen in our own house?

And I am not saying that we all have to share exactly the same sensibilities and all have to be upset by the same things. I am outraged by what is happening in Washington, DC almost every single day, too, but I know people who are perfectly content with it. Fine.

But there is so much obvious injustice in our world and so many things that would seem to bind us together in our collective outrage. Alas, I just don’t sense it out there. Not from the crowd I am listening to. My family. My friends. My social media contacts. My world. It breaks my heart how silent and unmoved you are by things that matter so much to me (and that I want to believe would matter to you).

It is this deep sadness, this disappointment, that always remains when the fire of outrage quiets. I am more often sad than mad about stuff. I think that is part of my disposition. But I am feeling—deeply, passionately, painfully—and if nothing else, that reminds me that I care. I just don’t know about anybody else.

I am looking for it, desperately wanting to feel that flame from others the way a captain lost in the storm wants to see the lighthouse. I long for some sign, some indication that it’s not just me, that I am not alone in my pain and indignation at injustice. I want to know that the collective response to everything isn’t just a shrug, a “Whatever”. I want to know that there exists some degree of indecency, immorality, illegality, or injustice that will cause a critical mass of us to not simply raise our eyebrows but also our hearts and voices.

I feel myself both inside the world and outside, knocking on the door and wondering if we are still in here, if we will answer it or if we will turn down the lights and hide in the basement until the knocking goes away. I need to feel some reassurance that we are going to answer, because right now, I am getting nothing. That silence makes me want to scream.

How about you? Is there any rage coming out of you from the way our world is working? Open up your journal and consider what, if anything, raises you to the level where something has to be said or done about it. Is there anything? When was the last time you felt truly outraged about something? What was it? How did you vent your frustration and anger? A group protest? A Facebook rant? A vent session with a loved one who empathizes with you? Or did you just stuff it all down inside you to keep stewing? What type of thing usually draws your ire? Social justice issues? The ineptitude and acrimonious dealings of our elected officials in Washington? Environmental issues? Concerns of unfairness in your workplace? Income inequality and the dominance of the wealthy few over the many? Mistreatment in individual relationships? Why does expressing our outrage over blatant societal injustice have to be polarizing and scare us into not expressing ourselves? Is it actually controversial to say that Philando Castile was dealt an injustice or that his family was dealt another one with the verdict? I think it takes a fairly high degree of denial to survive and remain sane in this society, because there are so many causes for outrage around us. Do you find that to be the case, and how do you filter the many triggers? Do you ever worry that you have taken that filtering and denial too far, to the point that nothing outrages you anymore? I feel like most people have gotten that way about the mess in Washington. Do you think some outrage is healthy, though, as a sort of proof that you are alive and engaged with the world? I like the H.L. Mencken quote, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” How often should you allow this outrage to surface in order to remain happy and balanced? How can you apply your outrage to activism for positive change? On a scale of one to ten, with one being always silent, passive, and even-keeled, and ten being outraged, vocal, and actively engaged in protest, where do you generally fall on the spectrum of outrage regarding societal injustice? Does that feel like a healthy spot for you, or is it time to make some changes? What aspect of your world needs your outrage and your voice? Are you ready to give it? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where is your outrage?

Speak and act your Truth,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. I would also love to hear from you, either in the comments or on Facebook, especially about which of the many injustices in the world rile you most. Thank you for energy.

What Has The World Done To Us?

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” –Oscar Wilde

“Just read a great quote and thought of you.” There is no better way to grab my attention than to start off a message with that line. Of course, I love a good quotation. And I always appreciate when someone not only thinks of me but also makes the effort to let me know. So it warmed my heart earlier this week when that text arrived from my brother, whom I hardly ever hear from. In those milliseconds between sentences, I was already on pins and needles to read the words that brought me to his mind. Here they were:

“The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”

Those words are the opening line of a book called “The Beast God Forgot to Invent” by Jim Harrison, the guy who wrote the more famous “Legends of the Fall” in the days when Brad Pitt was big.

Let his words sink in.

“The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”  

When I read those words, something in a deep-down place went, “DING!” Maybe it is because I exaggerate the importance of my brother’s thoughts. Maybe it is the particular place where I am in my life’s journey right now. Or maybe it is because I have always been suspicious of this bargain that our ancestors began and that we have all willingly (and probably unconsciously) joined in. Whether it was one of these reasons or some combination, that quote really resonated with me.

It is a huge, can-of-worms kind of thought, I know, and I am sure you and I could write dozens of letters back and forth to try to unpack the multitude of directions in which it could explode. Difficult ideas like this are the easiest ones to give up on. But, as much as I have tried to ignore this thought over the past few days, it won’t give up. It gnaws at me.

I suppose it is best to flesh out what aspect of “civilization” seems to be weighing on me and why I feel like my existence is threatened with oblivion if I keep buying what the world is selling. The answer is, of course, murky and complex, but if I could pull out a couple of aspects, I would say they are 1) Increasing Busy-ness, and 2) Decreasing Depth of Connections. Both of these point to a shallow form of existence, perpetually chasing the next shiny object. Or, as Harrison says, pissing away our lives on nonsense.

As for the Busy-ness, this seems to permeate all that we do and only seems to be increasing as we get more “civilized”.   When we adults get together, we have boasting contests about how many hours we worked in the last week, as though being consumed by a job and kept away from family and other pursuits were a badge of honor. I see the kids in my neighborhood—including my own—too busy running from one scheduled activity to the next that they cannot find time to just hangout and play.

And what are we so busy chasing? What is so darn important at our jobs and in our cars and at our events?

I am not suggesting that earning money to feed our families is not extremely valuable and necessary, but what I wonder about are the methods we choose and how much more time and energy we give them than they are worthy of.

And I am not suggesting that it is unhealthy to expose our children to lots of different new skills and sports in the hopes that they will stay healthy and find something they are passionate about, but what I wonder is, How much is too much? And also, How much of it is just doing it because everyone else seems to be doing it?

Our current version of civilization is shoving us along at a breakneck pace and seeing to it that we check all the boxes—make money, mind your status, have your kids signed up for every activity, dress right, do it all—for a life that can be deemed acceptable. But just because civilization gives its stamp of approval does not automatically make one’s life fulfilling. Does working all those hours to get rich actually make your life rich? I wonder…..

Don’t get me wrong. I know that working a ton at something that lights you up inside can be totally fulfilling (and sometimes it can even make you a lot of money). I am just wondering if that is the case for most people who are trying to do what the world tells them to do.

For me, I have been in Job Search Mode lately, and I really want to get it right this time and not hate my work. I am having an awful time finding a job description that excites me, even if civilization might have my resumé flying out left and right and taking anything that pays enough to check all of those boxes. I know I am picky, and I know I want it all—no compromises—but this is testing me.

I am beginning to think I don’t fit very well in this civilization. Oh wait, I have always thought that. Carry on!

As for the Decreasing Depth of Connections, I probably don’t need to regurgitate here all of the arguments about how this age of social media has created a world of people who “share” a lot but still don’t know how to actually talk with one another or make a genuine, thick-or-thin commitment. While our screens seem to allow us to reach more people, which I love—it lets me write to you—I also sense that these screens do more to insulate us from each other than they do to connect us with each other.

I also see that in the way we “civilized” people tend to gather in cities. Larger metropolitan areas have so much to offer—a variety of ways to find that career passion I mentioned above, greater diversity, tons of new experiences—making it seem obvious why we have become increasingly centralized throughout history. And yet, I can’t help but notice in my own journey—as a smallish-town kid who has lived in our nation’s biggest cities and is now a suburbanite—that the larger the population center, the more anonymous and disconnected the inhabitants seem to be.

I hope I am just projecting from my own experiences, but it feels like we are getting poorer and poorer at deep, meaningful connection and relationships of quality and substance. Between our electronic insulation and our population-density anonymity, civilization seems to be pointing us that way. Add that to the busy-ness of a life spent chasing through the traffic—vehicular and electronic—in our rush to get to our next event or next “must-see” post or Netflix series or gym class or job opportunity. Before we know it, we will have frenzied ourselves all the way to the end of our lives.

And what will it all look like from that angle? Will all of these shiny objects, these must-see, must-have experiences still look so valuable, so necessary? Or rather, will they look simply like a lot of unfulfilling filler, a lot of “nonsense”?

Maybe all of this doubt and suspicion is just part of my existential crisis stemming from my search for my Next Big Thing. But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s a question I only dare allow into my consciousness every several years because I cannot bear to face the inevitable answer.

I just want what Henry David Thoreau wanted when he built his cabin in the woods near Walden Pond: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life.”

Most days, I feel like to do that is to buck all that civilization is requesting of me.

How about you? Is this thing called Civilization helping or hurting your efforts at making a meaningful, fulfilling life? Open up your journal and see where this gigantic topic leads you. If you are like me, you probably won’t be able to tie a neat bow on this one but will turn over all sorts of new stones in your mind while trying. Let your mind and your pen wander. You can write for days on this one. Go back to the Jim Harrison quote: “The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” What is your immediate, gut-level response to that thought? Is it at all accurate for the population in general? What about for the people in your circle? How about for yourself? To what degree are you “pissing away your life on nonsense”? Does your busy-ness match your fulfillment? How many deep, meaningful relationships do you have that truly make your life worthwhile? What types of things qualify as “nonsense” in your mind? How much of your assessment of this whole idea comes down to something like, “Well, people should just personally choose to live better—pick more noble pursuits, build deeper bonds with others. Civilization has nothing to do with it.”? Which way does civilization lead us? Is our world, our civilization, just a load of empty promises, perpetually selling the glitter of greater busy-ness and broader brushstrokes but really just delivering a shallow existence, devoid of both quality time and meaningful connections? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are we wasting Humanity on nonsense?

Give yourself the gift of Truth,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to examine this thing we have going on here.

Bury Your Head or Go Insane? Dealing with the Flood of News & Social Media

“I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.” –Rabih Alameddine, Koolaids: The Art of War 

Hello friend,

I lost my temper on social media this week. I feel ashamed of it now as I think of the moment. Not ashamed of what I said—in fact, I wish I had said more to make my point more clear—but rather, ashamed that I let what is happening on the news and in social media cause me to boil over in rage.

I am a mellow, happy guy and have a habit of very deliberate processing with my journal that allows me to deliver measured, thoughtful responses to most issues that arise in my day. I don’t fly off the handle. My opinions may ruffle feathers, but not usually my delivery. Because I don’t lose my temper. I don’t write angry. Until Tuesday….

Probably like you, I followed the big story of last weekend—the ban on refugees and travel restrictions from certain Muslim-majority countries and its subsequent protests—on the news and through social media. The nature of the ban, as well as the criteria for selection of the nations involved in it, was deeply disturbing to me and only the latest in a long line of red flags being raised in my conscience regarding the new administration. I admit to being highly sensitive to the reputation of America internationally being dragged into the mud, and also when I feel the government does things that increase the gap between the ideals that America supposedly represents and the reality we are representing in practice. So, I was already edgy going into the new week.

After the election, I had mostly removed myself from social media until around Christmas. And though I kept tabs on the news, it was a much-needed break from the idea circus that is Facebook and the like. After the holidays, I slowly inched back onto my apps and, not surprisingly, became progressively re-addicted. I use social media as much for news as to see what my people are thinking about and doing. If I watch CNN on television or listen to NPR on the radio, then I subscribe to them on social media. So, I get a mix of real news and then my friends’ interpretation and reaction to the news (mixed in with some fun photos of their kids and their food, and an occasional cat video).

If you have been alive with your head above ground these last couple of weeks, you probably know that all is not running so smoothly in America. If you only watched reputable news channels and didn’t even know what “social media” meant, you would know that. Likewise, if you were a social media nut but didn’t care a thing about “serious” news outlets, you would also be aware of the tension that currently defines us at this point. And if, like me, you have both regular news and social media, well, you are swimming in it!

By Tuesday night, I definitely needed some goggles and a snorkel.

I had watched in horror as the Executive Orders came down. I heard the stories of people unable to return to their jobs and families here in America after visiting relatives in banned countries. I thought of the many Somali families in my own community—classmates of my children—and how they would be affected. I thought of the refugee family that my church is sponsoring—we had their apartment all set up with furniture and supplies—who was supposed to arrive this week from Somalia that is now stuck in Kenya (the mother has been in the refugee camp there for twenty years, her children never knowing any other place). That part was particularly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, of course, I wondered about the fate of our schools as the Senate seemed about to confirm someone who seemed wholly incompetent to be in charge of them; and about the future of free speech in America as even the most neutral, even-handed news outlets are being warned and belittled by the administration; and about the environment and climate change scientists as they come under attack; and about whether our next Attorney General would actually stand on the side of the law and the Constitution; and on and on and on. There was no shortage of stories, no shortage of crises.

In the midst of all of the news and reactions Tuesday evening, as my blood pressure seemed to rise with every post, I read one from a childhood acquaintance, a long rant (her word) about how President Obama had just done this same ban on Cubans two weeks ago, and where was the liberal media then, and angrily on and on. This is when I should have checked myself, turned off all electronics for the day, and taken some deep breaths. But no. I let it make my blood boil, the effects of too much time in front of the screen taking hold. Even though her whole premise was based on a falsehood, making the argument completely unsound, I couldn’t just laugh it off. I was on the very edge of writing a reply to her and setting her straight, but I gathered my wits just enough to recognize that with some people, there is just no talking sense into them (another lesson from my short time on Facebook).

And just as I began to think I had done well in resisting a fight, I scrolled down and hit the one that sent me over the edge. It was from someone I wasn’t even sure I knew, but I think she was in my brother’s class in school. Anyway, it was a meme—of course it was a meme, it is always a meme—with a picture of the plane hitting the World Trade Center on September 11, saying something like “For all of you whining about the ban on Muslims, a little reminder for you.” I almost screamed. I was absolutely livid! I could not let it go. So, against the better judgment I had just applauded myself for a moment earlier, I clicked on the “Write a comment…” space. I typed the first thing that came out of my head (after the swearing, I mean): “Are you serious, Sheila? Perhaps we should post a picture of the KKK performing a lynching and call for a ban of all Christians.” Return. That was it.

As I sat there fuming, I thought of other things I wanted to say to her, such as “Interestingly, none of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were from the seven countries banned by the President. They were from four other countries, all of which the President has business ties to.” And I almost hit the Comment box again, but thankfully, I found my senses again. But I didn’t let go of my outrage. I was still stewing about it late that night, tossing in my bed as I tried to sleep.

I knew it wasn’t just this one stupid meme that was tormenting me. It was all of it: the Executive Orders, the incompetence, the acrimony on both sides of the political aisle, the nonsensical responses on Facebook and Twitter, the fear that my friends feel and that I feel for them, the embarrassment on behalf of my country, the shame that I am not doing more to speak up and resist, and so much more.

I confessed my anger and my torment to my wife the next morning. I told her I was torn. On the one hand, I liked my several weeks away from social media and just a small but sufficient amount of regular news on a neutral news app. I was less stressed, riding the “Ignorance is bliss” theory. It made me think of a conservative friend of mine, whom I had spoken to just after the election and who knew I was bummed about it. She said, “I don’t even watch the news about this stuff. But at least I’m happy!”

It is hard to argue with happy. On the other hand, I don’t just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening around me. As uncomfortable as it is, I think it is necessary to wrestle with that discomfort and figure out my place in its midst.

I feel like the biggest danger to us is indifference. Not caring. Not speaking up to support what our cause or idea is (or worse, not caring enough to even have an opinion). Just quietly letting it happen to us. I think of my hero Martin Luther King as he was considering his greatest obstacles to progress, well aware that it was not the Ku Klux Klan or other extremists but rather the masses of polite but silent white people allowing the violence and oppression to continue. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

I think that appalling silence comes more frequently when we bury our heads in the sand, allowing denial to rule. It is a pleasant denial, but I am seeing now that in our most divisive moments, that pleasant denial is mostly cowardice. That conclusion doesn’t sit well with me. I think again of Dr. King, who reminded us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of controversy and challenge.” There is a slippery kind of comfort and convenience to tuning out the world in times like now. Just turning off the news and social media. It is so, so alluring. Tragically so.

But how much is enough? That is the question that is torturing me now. I am determined to maintain my composure, to not let myself get as livid as I was on Tuesday night after too many hours of accumulating news stories and social media opinions. But I want to know the truth about the world, too. I want all the facts. I know I will be outraged by some, and I think it is probably time that more of us were outraged and moved to action by events in our world. But under control! I am not going to lose my temper. I am going to channel it the right way. But not in denial!

ARGH!!! This is hard! What is the right balance of intake versus processing, of reality versus sanity? That was my question to my wife.

Her suggestion: “Just pick one time per day—I think morning is best—to do a quick look at social media. Then, if you still want a regular news show, listen to something neutral, like NPR. But nothing more. Quick and done! Otherwise, you are sucked in!” That seems wise.

I have been attempting to follow her advice the last few days, mostly successfully. I sometimes, out of sheer habit, unconsciously turn on my phone, open Facebook, and start thumbing through. But then I catch myself and turn it off. I am just trying to be more conscious about it, to give myself permission to look only at a certain time of day for only a certain number of minutes. It is hard to resist, but I can tell my spirit is getting stronger for it. Not in denial, either. Facing reality, but not swimming in the rot. It is a delicate balance that I will no doubt be wrestling with for all of my days to come.

How about you? How do you balance denial with peace and sanity in these tumultuous times? Open up your journal and examine your level of engagement. This goes for everyone on every side of the political spectrum, and even those completely off the political spectrum who are simply trying to decide how much news of any sort they want to take in. Let’s start with your current habits. What are your news sources? Do you watch your local news? Cable news? Do you use news apps or subscribe to news pages on social media? If so, do you tend to choose more neutral sources or ones that skew toward your particular side of the spectrum? Do you read a lot of the “news” things that your friends on social media share? How about the radio, like NPR? How much time do you spend with each on a daily basis? How much time do you spend on social media in general? For both news and social media stuff, do you try to regulate the amount of time you spend per day? Are you addicted? How healthy is your relationship with all of this stuff? Does it ever feel like it is going to drive you crazy? Do you get angry? Is your anger and frustration more from the news in general, like the political strife or violence that always seem to lead the headlines, or from particular things that your friends share, like memes or rants? Do you comment and engage people you disagree with, even if you know it won’t change their mind? Does that make you feel better or worse? Have you found the right balance for yourself with the amount of time and energy you can devote to this stuff and still feel authentic and at peace? Are you more on the “Burying My Head & Smiling” side or the “I’m So Engaged I’m Going Crazy” side? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the right balance of news and sanity for you?

May Peace be always with you,

William

P.S. If today’s letter helped you take a fresh look at this and find some clarity, please share. Perhaps together we can find a way to be both sane and engaged. Cheers!

This Is NOT an Election Article!

dsc_0566“Accepting all the good and bad about someone. It’s a great thing to aspire to. The hard part is actually doing it.” –Sarah Dessen

Hello friend,

Imagine a group of college-age friends who grew up together. They are all figuring out what their path in life is. Nearly all of them, of course, are going the conventional routes: business, teaching, medicine, technology, trades, and the like. They want to be respectable, earning members of the workforce until they retire. Generally speaking, you would say they are a group of very stable people.

There are two outliers in their group, though. One friend has decided that she wants to follow her passion for the arts and become a painter. She’s not exactly sure how she will make it work financially, but she is a dreamer and has faith it will work out. The other friend has decided he is going to become an estate lawyer and make a fortune scamming old people out of their money. His goal is to make money, and he doesn’t care about the human cost.

How, then, does their stable group of friends react to these two who are straying from the conventional path?

As for the artist/dreamer, they are concerned for her but don’t dislike or distrust her for her decision. They dismiss her, in a way, as being too whimsical, not sensible enough, foolish for choosing the unstable path. They warn her about the starving artist lifestyle she is choosing, reminding her that she will be without health insurance or a 401K plan. The stable crew feels a little bad for their artist friend, even, as she “just doesn’t get it” and “lives in a fantasyland.” Her heart is in the right place, though, so they don’t dislike her. But they also don’t take her seriously and are relieved there aren’t lots more like her. She is a bit dangerous to their stability. Lovable, but dangerous.

The scamming lawyer, on the other hand, is now viewed by the friends as dangerous but unlovable. It is clear that his heart is not in the right place. A moral failing has entered the picture, and their sensibilities are offended by that. They are disappointed. They realize they can no longer trust him the way they thought they could. A wall has gone up in their relationship, one that is probably too steep to climb in order to build that relationship back to whole again.

The artist’s flaw, according to the group, is that she feels too much, she lets her heart guide her. The lawyer’s flaw is that he is heartless, callous. The artist can be forgiven for veering off the path of the rest of the group, but the lawyer cannot.

You are probably wondering why in the world I am having you think about these people. Well, lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about the individual people in my life, how I interact with each, and whether they seem more like someone who I want closer to me or someone who I need to distance myself from. I am oversensitive to just about everything, but especially to the prospect of spending time with people I think poorly of. I am repulsed by that and have left jobs and relationships because of it.

With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, we have this magical way of reconnecting and staying in touch with so many more people than ever before. People from your past—high school and college friends, former colleagues—and even people whom you have never met in person. You can actually learn a lot about some of them. Sometimes more than you want to.

As you well know, it is political season. And while many of the people I know–whether intimately, in person, or online–tend to reveal little to nothing about their political views, there are certainly others who really put themselves out there for their candidate or cause. They reveal their positions on some topics that truly matter to me. That’s where it can get uncomfortable.

As I have watched other people’s interactions and tried to understand my own reactions to people on the other end of the political spectrum from me—I am quite liberal on just about all of the big topics—I see patterns emerging. So, I am developing my own pet theory on how a relationship between a liberal person and a conservative person plays out when their views are made known to the other. (Keep in mind that I am well aware that the people of the world hold a zillion varieties of viewpoints, and that the liberal and conservative in my theory are, by necessity, caricatured people that are to the far left and far right, respectively.) Check this out and be ready to help me tinker with my theory by sharing your personal pattern of reactions.

Remember the artist/dreamer of the friend group? Well, in my developing theory, the way the group viewed the artist is the way my conservative character views my liberal character. He (the conservative) sees her (the liberal’s) flaw as her “bleeding heart,” always thinking the government should help everyone and right wrongs. In his eyes, she is leading with her heart, which is foolish and impractical, because of course we can’t foot the bill for other people’s problems. Her insistence that we can is more annoying than anything. But at least her heart is in the right place, so he can’t despise her for that. He tolerates her.

To the liberal, on the other hand, the conservative is looked upon the way our friend group reacted to the scamming lawyer. She sees him as having abandoned his heart in favor of his pocketbook. His is a callous perspective, ignoring the plight of others and even basic human rights (I have been using universal health coverage in my ponderings, but we could use things like capital punishment, women’s health issues, LGBT rights, or the Syrian refugee crisis, too). He has taken moral issues and turned them instead into economic ones, ignoring hearts and souls in favor of financial calculations. This is incredibly disappointing—even hurtful—to the liberal. Her feelings are hurt by the seeming callousness of the conservative’s positions. Her sensibilities are offended. A trust has been broken. There is a “How could you?” in her reaction, as in, “How could you devalue human life this way?” The liberal does not want to believe someone’s heart could be so cold. It is a devastating realization. She is effectively done with him.

So, at the end of it, it looks as though the conservative would be more tolerant of the liberal than the liberal is of the conservative. The conservative sees the liberal as a failure of reason and practicality, whereas the liberal sees the conservative as a failure of character and conscience. Her failure is acceptable; his is not. He can continue with her in his life, just as the stable group of friends could keep the artist. The liberal, however, no longer feels any interest in fraternizing with the conservative, seeing him as the friend group sees the scamming lawyer: morally bankrupt. With the trust broken, for her, the relationship is as good as over.

So, that’s the theory at this point. Like I said, the positions are probably a bit extreme for most people. But I have to admit, the liberal side is mostly a projection of stuff coming up from my own heart in these situations. I recognized the feelings I was having in response to all of these political posts as well as my conversations with different people, and the theory emerged from me trying, mostly through my daily journal entries, to make sense of the feelings. I wanted some clarity, which is what journaling has always brought me.

This process has helped me to better understand my internal workings, as well as my evolving relationships with family members, friends, and online connections. I have to admit it is a bit disturbing to see the final product being a desire to end, or at least pull back from, a number of relationships that I had once enjoyed and valued, even if on a more superficial level. But I can’t fake it, either. As I mentioned early on, it is a weakness of mine that I am oversensitive. Another one is that I am stubborn. That combination makes me tough to hang with. If you break my trust, I don’t easily let it go. (And yes, I recognize the irony in the fact that despite seeing my political positions as more enlightened and compassionate than the other side, I am the one who ends up being more intolerant in the actual relationship. I guess personal boundaries come with a cost.)

I suppose I hope for other people’s sake that they can make peace with people who hold vastly different views more easily than I can, that they can either forgive or compartmentalize their politics. Maybe it is like my theory—the conservatives can do it better than the liberals can—or maybe it is only me. In any case, the theory-making helped me to know myself better. Even if the results have shaken me a bit, I am glad I took the dive.

How about you? How would you categorize your reactions to people whose views are starkly opposed to yours? It is probably helpful to start by locating yourself along the political spectrum. Are you fairly far in one direction overall, or pretty moderate? Is there one particular issue that you hold an extra-strong opinion about? Can disagreement on that issue trigger an emotional response from you? If you are on the conservative side of the spectrum, does my proposed theory resonate with you at all, i.e. do you find yourself being dismissive of liberals because their “bleeding hearts” make their proposals too impractical and expensive for your tastes, even if you tolerate them because they mean well? If that is not how you experience it, what is your reaction to someone you know who proposes a liberal idea? Do you find that the liberal ideas fail your test morally, or is it more logically or practically? If you are more left-leaning, does my theory resonate with you? Have you had the experience, in talking with conservatives about these issues, of being so dismayed—even hurt—by the callousness and lack of compassion in their positions to the point that you no longer wish to socialize with them? Have I gone too far in that side of the theory? Is your experience more like I described for the other side: it is frustrating that the conservative disagrees with you, but that has no bearing on how you rate their character and how much time you want to spend with them? If you are someone who is kind of in the middle on the issues—conservative on some, liberal on others—do you find yourself still leaning toward one side in terms of which friends you like or respect more, or is it also a pretty even mix? Is there something more morally upstanding about one side or the other? If you had to choose between spending your time with someone who is hopelessly impractical or someone who is immoral, who would you choose? Do you mostly try to avoid political discussions with people in your social groups so you aren’t forced to make these kinds of character evaluations and relationship changes? I think most of us do that at least some of the time, because let’s face it, it’s risky to wade into these waters. Is that an unhealthy denial, or is that simply a wise way to make life bearable in your little corner of the world? I am dying to know how you navigate this stuff! So please, leave me a reply and let me know: How do you handle your relationships with people who differ from you on important political issues? 

Claim your amazing self,

William

P.S. If today’s letter got you examining your relationships and how your political opinions shape your friend group and your tolerance for others, I hope you will share it. If you want these letters in your Inbox as soon as they are published, I invite you to sign up for the email.  Peace and Love, my friend.

Love It or Leave It? What Respect Do We Owe to Our Flag & Anthem?

DSC_0641“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” —Muhammad Ali 

This week has found me totally captivated by the story of Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and his decision to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason football game. When asked after the game about this highly unusual action, Kaepernick explained himself: 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. …This is not something I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. …If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” 

BOOM! Fire started.

The backlash was instantaneous and venomous. Social media was flooded with videos of people burning their Kaepernick jerseys—this age’s trendy way to protest a player’s actions—images that were quickly picked up by the mainstream media. Memes slamming him were everywhere on Facebook and Twitter. Everyone seems to be weighing in. I have heard commentators in and out of the sports world, as well as other professional athletes, describe his actions as “ungrateful,” “unpatriotic,” “selfish,” and “pathetic.” There has not been a lot of support. That much is clear.

I have actually been pleasantly surprised, though, by the number of sports people who have at least acknowledged that the cause he is trying to stand up for—or, rather, sit down for—is an important one. But most of these same folks still think the anthem is the wrong way to address it.

Much of the pushback seems to be military-related, as in, “You disrespecting the flag/anthem is a slap in the face to all of the people who have ever fought for the freedoms you are exercising with this action.” Another argument seems to go more like, “How dare you disrespect the flag of a country that allows you to earn millions for throwing a football? This country has given you everything!” There are certainly others, but these themes are pretty constant.

Nobody seems to be questioning if he has the right to do it but just whether he is right to do it. The most common answer: No matter what your issue is or how big it is, you just don’t disrespect the flag or ignore the anthem.

But, really, why not? Is the answer that black-and-white? Should it really be that simple? I don’t know.

I suppose I grew up thinking of the anthem—and the American flag—as “sacred,” something that you just didn’t mess with. No matter what. Sort of like The Bible, I suppose: you could Pinkie Promise or swear on your life and maybe get by unscathed if you broke it, but you didn’t dare put your hand on The Bible and swear your oath unless you were absolutely certain. It was flirting with the Devil. I remember being in complete shock when I first saw someone burning the American flag on the news. I couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t know that was even an option. I suppose that for most people, something like that happened when they heard about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, like “What? No. You don’t get to sit for the anthem!” 

For some reason, though, I didn’t have that reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I was startled by it, because I knew it was taboo. But I wasn’t outraged. I wasn’t even really dismayed. More than anything, I was fascinated.

I think I was fascinated as much by my own reaction as I was by his motivations and how it would be received. I was aware that I was okay with what he did, but I felt really odd about being okay with it? I wondered if I should be as outraged as almost everyone else seemed to be. But I just wasn’t. I think it was because the more I considered the issue, and particularly his motivation for sitting out the anthem, the more I realized what a complex web of issues was involved. It was a lot more grey than simply black or white.

I know that much of the sentiment against Kaepernick and his statement can be summed up something like this: “He’s a disrespectful coward, and he has no gratitude to the country that has made him rich and famous. Pathetic!” 

I understand that sentiment. I really do. I think it’s the easy reaction, and if things were only black or white, I would probably end up with that reaction, too. But, as I try to empathize with him and really take the words he says seriously, I find myself feeling another way.

My guess is that Colin Kaepernick grew up a lot like I did, and probably like you did. He probably cheered “U.S.A.!! U.S.A!!” at the television during the Olympics like I did. He probably looked at the flag and the anthem as sacred, too, and was probably shocked when he first witnessed a flag burning. And because I am inclined to see him as more like me—just like most everyone in the world—than different, I have to believe it took some serious soul-searching, lots of inner turmoil, and finally some real bravery to take this bold action. That much I can definitely respect. I also figured out something important: that I can separate the fact that I respect him for his convictions from the entirely different issue of whether I think the final display of his convictions—sitting for the anthem—was a wise or foolish choice.

I also look at the flip-side of the argument that he has no grounds to sit out the anthem because he has made millions of dollars by living in this great country. The flip-side is that he actually has a lot to lose by making this statement. Endorsement dollars, potential job opportunities, fans, relationships. He didn’t ask any teammates to join his protest because he immediately felt the public backlash and didn’t want to subject them to it, too. But he was willing to kneel for the anthem for this week’s game, too. With all that he had to lose, he did it anyway to keep getting his message out there. I can appreciate that kind of courage.

Finally, he didn’t seem to be pulling this as some immediate reaction to an incident that happened to him. As far as we know, he was not recently a victim of police violence or profiling. So, it wasn’t obviously a personal thing. He has previously been outspoken on social media about civil rights issues. This is all just to say that I give some credence to the idea that he was actually using his large public voice to speak for the voiceless. He was taking a stand for others who had less power to stand for themselves. That, all by itself, is admirable to me.

In the end, I still can’t say for sure whether Colin Kaepernick sitting out the anthem is “right” or not. I definitely think the cause he is speaking up for is a worthy one, but I don’t know if sitting out the anthem succeeded in bringing enough of the right kind of attention to the cause or not. The issue of him sitting clearly blew up in the media, but did the issue of racism and police violence against people of color blow up as well? Are people talking seriously about that now, too? I hope they are, but I am not sure. I think the jury is still out and waiting for time to tell us if the protest will be successful.

So, would I do it? Would I sit or kneel for the anthem? I never have before. I like to think that I am quite aware of and sensitive to the way our country and our culture has systematically failed large groups of people, including the ones Kaepernick is standing up for. America has a history of deep, dark injustice that has not been well addressed and thus continues to be a cancer on us all. Those things are worth a protest. But America—and by extension, the flag that stands for it—is also about ideals. There are lofty philosophies—freedom, equality, justice, and more—that our nation strives to be a model of. The flag symbolizes those ideals and also the people who fought and died to give the rest of us the chance to keep striving for them. In my mind, of course I know we haven’t lived up to those ideals. Societally, we fail regularly and miserably at that. I get that, and I can see why Colin Kaepernick wants to remind us that we need to do better. But I also understand how, at least for me, it is important to stand for a couple of minutes sometimes and listen to a song that reminds me of the ideals that we all so desperately need to keep striving for.

How about you?   How do you feel about the idea of someone sitting out the national anthem in protest of America’s shortcomings? Open up your journal and see if you can flesh out the complexities of this very polarizing issue. First, what is your initial, gut reaction to hearing about this protest against the flag or the anthem? Is it a strong feeling, or just mild? On a scale of one to ten, how patriotic would you say you are? Do you think that patriotism dictates the severity of your reaction to this issue? Is Kaepernick’s cause—racial injustice and police violence against people of color—important enough to tread into such a volatile (though peaceful) form of protest? Has it so far succeeded in getting you and those around you to think about or discuss these issues? In your sphere, has the racial injustice discussion been overshadowed by the anthem/flag discussion? Do you agree with me that it required courage and conviction to protest in this way? Can you respect and admire those qualities in him even if you disagree with his actions? Would you sit out the anthem for this cause? Is there anything our country could do—e.g. enter into an unjust war—that could make you sit out the anthem or desecrate a flag? Should we honor our anthem and flag because of the ideals that we would like the country to stand for—and the people who fought for those ideals–or because of how the country actually is? Should the flag simply be out of bounds when it comes to protests, i.e. should Americans salute it no matter what is happening here or what types of conflicts the country is participating in? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do we owe to our flag and our anthem? 

Be your best today,

William

P.S. If this helped you to consider this difficult topic in a new light, please pass it on. Let’s spread the empathy around! Bless you.

Troll Power!!! When Did It Become So Normal To Be Negative?

DSC_0784“Bad stuff happens, people are mean, there are no steps you can take to ensure the world leaves you alone. All you can do is try not to be one of those people who contributes to the bad.” –Holly Bourne, Am I Normal Yet? 

Hello friend,

Amidst what we would expect to be a shower of glory and accolades from winning an Olympic gold medal last week, American gymnast Gabby Douglas instead found herself in a hurricane of negativity. The trolls of social media came out in full force to disparage everything from her appearance to her love of the country she has spent the last several years proudly representing. They told her she had bad hair. They told her she wasn’t cheering hard enough for her teammates. They absolutely ripped her patriotism when, during the playing of our national anthem after she and her teammates won the gold medal, she elected to stand at attention with her hand at her side rather than over her heart. She actually felt compelled between events to apologize if she offended anyone by standing that way (never mind that if you look around before a game at a big stadium, hands to the sides during the anthem is completely common). By the time she got to her final press conference of The Games, the vilified Douglas could barely get through it without tears. Apart from not performing as well as she had hoped, she talked of all of the social media haters and how “hurtful” it all was. She walked down the hallway alone and broke down.

That is a two-time Olympian and multiple gold medal winner. And that is what passes for normal on social media these days.

Last weekend, my wife was explaining a project she was working on at her job, creating a public service video designed to bring awareness to sexual violence prevention and how we should all empower ourselves to stop it. She pulled up a YouTube video for me as an example of what they wanted to do, this one done by celebrities. It was well done and well-intentioned, and of course, its message is extremely important. Just as the video was ending, though, she quickly warned me to NOT look at the comments below the video. “All it is down there is nastiness. Just mean-spirited stuff.” So, I didn’t look. For days, I didn’t look, disciplined in my philosophy that my mind shouldn’t go wandering in the mud unless necessary.

But then, my curiosity got the best of me. I mean, how could you possibly be nasty about a public service announcement against rape? Right? It didn’t make sense to me. So, literally just now, I looked.

Holy Hannah!!!

I don’t think of myself as a prude at all, and I like to think I am aware of what is out there in the world. But, oh my goodness, I am beyond disturbed by what I just read! Beyond!

I guess I am not shocked that some people think these awful, mean-spirited things. But this painful, dark sensation in my heart right now—honestly, I am a bit crushed and totally stunned by this experience—seems to be from the sheer volume of people spewing this hate and negativity. It is endless! I couldn’t believe the first few comments I saw, so, like a fool, I kept looking. It was an endless onslaught of vulgarity that ran the gamut of topics, all equally disturbing. In the end, I guess that is what I feel most right now, in the immediate aftermath: DISTURBED.

The questions come racing to the front of my mind. How could someone have that much hate in them? How could SO MANY people have that much hate in them? How could an innocent public service announcement stir all of that up? If there are this many people commenting with hate on something as innocuous as a PSA for sexual violence prevention, do I dare even imagine how many and how negative the comments are for more normal pop culture things, like celebrities or politics or athletes? Who ARE these hateful people? How did we get to this point where this level of negativity is so common that it feels normal, like just part of the deal? 

As these questions relate to the real purpose of Journal of You, they lead me to wonder not just about our society in general but about my personal inventory. That is where it all starts. The issue that keeps spilling out of my churning mind is, “When did it become so easy and acceptable to be so negative?”

I know that for myself, because of my interest in politics and my natural leanings to one of the far ends of the spectrum, it can be easy to dismiss or rail against people on the other end of that spectrum. I think that is especially true in the company of other people who think like I do. One of the things I have done lately to check that tendency, though, is to institute a personal “No Negatives” policy on social media posts. So, even if I come across a meme about Donald Trump that I find hilarious, I am not going to share it. If I find an article about something that I despise, I am not going to share it with my comments about “I hate it when…..” or “This lady is a piece of….. .” Even in response to other people’s posts, I am not going to go down the road of telling them how awful the idea or person they believe in is. I have watched how those interactions spiral, and it is just not productive.

I will, however, on my own page, post about issues that I believe are important or stances that I support. Basically, I want the pattern of my pages to say, “I feel positively about this, and I support that,” rather than “I feel negatively about this, and it is stupid to support that.” (It reminds me of my years of coaching sports, and the important lesson it took me a long time to learn: Better to show and explain to the student what you DO want them to do, rather than keep saying, “Stop doing this” and “Don’t do that.”) 

It will probably always be a mystery to me why someone would spend their time and energy to go on social media to disparage an Olympian’s hair or rail about her lack of patriotism (as she wins gold medals for my country while I sit here on my sofa eating ice cream). And I will certainly never understand why someone would search YouTube for public service announcements about preventing sexual violence so he can comment about how “rape is natural” and “they deserve it” and all sorts of other bigoted swill.

What I can understand, though, is the power of a voice. (After centuries where so few people had a voice that could reach an audience out of earshot, today anyone with a keyboard might reach millions immediately. Maybe that newfound power is what we are all fumbling with now, trying to figure out how to best harness it.) My promise to myself is to be aware of my voice, to understand that it is my choice which way I go with it, and to use it for good. I am going positive.

How about you? Which way do you go with your voice? Open up your journal and get clear on what your vibe is. How easily do you slip into negativity? How would you categorize your most frequent negativity? Are you inclined to rip on people, such as Gabby Douglas, for their appearance or perceived personality traits? Do you share snarky memes about people (e.g. politicians) that you disagree with? Do you find yourself writing or saying stuff like “I hate….” or “You know what really makes me mad? …..”? Would people who talked to you or followed you on social media tend to think you were more optimistic or pessimistic? Open-minded or narrow-minded? Friendly or mean-spirited? In which forum do you let your negativity out? Do you save it for only someone closest to you (e.g. spouses who rip on everyone else, but only to each other—a partner in mockery)? Do you save your more negative commentary for people in the room with you, i.e. in the form of conversations? How much do you put your feelings out on social media? Are you willing to comment on other people’s posts with negative reaction to what they are in support of? Are the things you post or share on your own Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat page more “This is what I believe in…” or more “This is what I can’t stand…”? Have you ever been the person in the Comments section of an online article, video, or chat room who uses the space to be mean to people (either the creators or the other commenters)? Does the anonymity and invisibility of the Internet allow you let your negativity to flow more freely? On the whole, are we more negative these days, or are there just more ways to spread our negativity than before? What is behind this willingness to go so negative? Is it the impersonal nature of the Internet and social media, where we can hide behind our screens and mine from the very worst of our character traits with impunity? Is it the general decline in respect for authority figures? Is it the increasing distance we keep from other people, which lessens our feelings of empathy? With zero being very negative and ten being very positive, how would you rate yourself in terms of the way you are using your voice? Are you willing to do better? I dare you! Leave me a reply and let me know: How can you speak more from the positive in you? 

It costs nothing,

William

P.S. If this letter made you check yourself a bit and consider a different way, please pass it on. Let’s build this thing together!

But What Can Little Old Me Do? A Question for Our Troubling Times

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. And no message could have been any clearer: If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” –Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror

DSC_0015Hello friend,

I have a Facebook friend, someone a year older than me from high school, who I knew just enough to know I liked him. It is plain from his posts that he has a tough life. He is saddled with debilitating mental illness and is in the darkest depths of depression much of the time. My image of his existence is one of extreme isolation: living alone, unable to work, and whose only interactions with the outside world come via Facebook.

Having lost nearly everything from his promising young life to his mental illness, you would expect his Facebook persona to be bitter, angry, hurtful, and pessimistic, right? Wrong! While he shares openly about the depth of his pain—which, frankly, sounds unbearable to me and thus makes me admire him even more—he mostly seems to be sharing educational, thought-provoking pieces, songs that make him feel better, and respectful political items (I admit to being partial to his liberal leanings, but the respect with which he delivers his points and his comments on other posts are my focus here). Much more than that, though, he comments so authentically and kindly to people who respond to what he shares. He has responded with great heart a few times to things I have shared. It felt genuine, and I always appreciated that. I appreciate it from anyone, but given that the cards Life has dealt him would seem to provide reason for him to be the guy spewing negativity and narrow-mindedness, I put even greater value on his kindness and generosity of spirit.

When I think of this guy, I think this: He makes as big of a positive impact as he can. You won’t catch him at a party or a community event. He is not going to be talking to people at the grocery store. It’s just not in him. His brain chemistry won’t allow it. But he has a computer. He has a Facebook account. And he uses it well. His sphere of influence is limited, but he maximizes it.

 That, to me, is helping our world climb toward the sun when the days are darkest.

I have another Facebook friend, someone I was much closer to when I was young than the first guy but whom I have mostly fallen out of contact with except for the occasional Facebook comment. The three of us—me, him, and the first guy–were all in different grades but from the same town, and they are also friends on Facebook. We share many ‘friends’ in common, so I am able to see their comments on other people’s posts, and they sometimes both comment on the same items. This second guy’s outward circumstances appear to be much different than the mentally ill hermit. The second one has a big job, wife, kids, lots of big social events, the whole deal. American dream type of stuff.

What do I notice on his Facebook comments and posts? He strikes me as the guy that the most fear-mongering of our politicians have connected with. Lots of anti-immigrant sentiment. Anger at the President. Snarky memes of opposing candidates. Global warming is a scam. On and on. Lots of negative. It’s true that there are family photos, concerts, and sports mixed in, but there is a pervasive feeling one gets going through his stuff. I see it in his comments on other people’s posts, too. People supporting liberal ideas or politicians draw angry retorts from him.

When I think of this second, seemingly more blessed guy—beyond my many fond memories of our old days together—I think this: He puts a lot of negativity out into the world. When it comes to public issues, he seems to share only what makes him mad and who he dislikes. He discourages discussion. He just seems bitter and angry at a lot of things. And he seems to have a broad sphere of influence. He has a big job and seems to be out in the community at lots of big events and gatherings. He must have the chance to reach a lot of people.

 Bummer!

In light of the recent tragedies and racial tension in our country, on my own Facebook page I have shared some educational articles about white privilege, dealing with racism, and understanding the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the articles I post are pretty long—including these weekly letters to you (thank you if you are still with me!)—and I certainly don’t expect many people to even open them much less get through them. But one piece this week actually brought a brief convergence of the three of us old guys from the same high school.

Only five people total even gave the post a “Like,” but the first guy (the positive recluse) was one of them. I appreciated that, guessing (and hoping) that he took the time to read the very informative article. But then I got a comment from the second guy (the negative yet sociable one). To paraphrase: “Unfortunately, in today’s America, attempts at intelligent dialogue end in verbal and physical threats and being labeled as a ‘racist’ or ‘bigot.’ That shuts down the conversation and any potential connection. We will never have a mutual understanding without getting back together, and there is no chance of that happening with either Hillary or Trump.”

 Of course, I am not good at accepting a defeatist verdict as the last word on anything. And since I appreciated him reading the article and because it was something that I shared that drew the comment, I felt compelled to respond to my old friend:

“I feel you, buddy. I think the getting-on-the-same-page thing has to happen one person at a time. Looking for the President to change our dialogues is granting that office too much power and robs us of our agency in the matter. It is up to each of us to look into the mirror—consider your recent conversations with friends or colleagues, the Facebook or Twitter comments you make or posts you share, your interactions with people different from yourself—and decide to do better, be bigger. I think when we start with ourselves and work outward as far as our influence stretches, that is our best hope to make the kind of connection and progress you mentioned. It’s easy to be negative or disgusted or isolate yourself from others. The hard (but necessary) work comes in doing the opposite.”

I guess that mostly sums up how I think about solving the enormous issues we are all faced with right now, a scab that seemingly gets ripped off every week when another unarmed black man gets shot by police or another police officer gets shot in a centuries-growing revenge rage. I see a few professional athletes now standing up saying, “We can’t go on like this. We have to do something!” Many of the rest of us are saying some version of the same thing. Unfortunately, what usually follows goes something like, “Uhh………..but what do we do?”

 Sure, you can write your Senators, Representatives, Mayors, and City Council. You can absolutely use your voice at the ballot box. But, as I said in my response to my pessimistic friend, you must then own your own stuff. Each of us needs to take personal responsibility for what we put out into the world. Our words, our gestures, our social media comments and shares, our actions in the world.

We all have a sphere of influence. Not all of us are celebrities that can get meetings with the leaders of government and business. But each of us crosses paths with people every day. It may be in the grocery store, the chat room, or your living room. We all have access to others, usually far more than we realize. It is up to each of us to do something positive with that access. Teach. Learn. Encourage. Comfort. Be comforted. Empathize. Appreciate. Share. Carry. Unburden. Enlighten. Listen. Pray. Love. Connect.

You have the power to help the cause. Claim that power. Own it. Don’t give it away to “the government,” “American culture,” “the President,” “people,” or especially “them,” whoever they are. Giving it away is playing small. You are bigger than that. Act like it! Work your sphere every chance you get. Be a light to every person you touch. That’s what you can do!

Our world needs you and I to accept that responsibility. I choose to accept.

How about you? Do you choose to accept your share of the responsibility for building this bridge? Open up your journal and figure out how big of an impact you can make. I think the first step is to get an understanding of your sphere of influence. Who are the people you interact with every day—physically or virtually–even in the smallest ways? Family members, co-workers, neighbors, clerks, baristas, friends, Facebook community members, Twitter and Instagram followers, you name it. Who do you touch even occasionally or indirectly? Families of employees, friends of friends, recipients of your donations of time and/or money, members of your faith community, distant relatives, comment-readers from blogs or Facebook communities that you subscribe to, your political party, the police in your town, townsfolk who attend the same games and concerts that you do, others who share the same interest as you do (e.g., hikers, bikers, sports fans). Who else fits in your biggest sphere? Is it apparent to you that you have some influence over all of these people, even if indirectly? Do you only feel your inner sphere—family and close friends—and ignore the impact you have on the rest? I think it can be very easy to ignore our influence over those we don’t talk to directly about specific issues. How seriously do you take your responsibility to bring your very best self to those closest to you? I think that in our very closest relationships—e.g. spouses or best friends—because we give ourselves permission to put down our façade more, we sometimes devolve into bringing out our most negative, pessimistic side, emptying our frustrations from the world onto those we love the most. Do you see that in any of your relationships? Is there a more productive way? Social media gives every person’s voice a power and reach that was not fathomed in previous generations. What percentage of people, from your view, use their public voice for the benefit of humankind, and what percentage use it to spew more negative energy than positive? How about you? Speaking just in terms of your public image via social media and social interactions, do you think people perceive you more the way I perceive the first friend I spoke of, or more of the second? Obviously no one is entirely angelic or evil here, but you know what it is to get a vibe from someone’s posts. What kind of energy are you spreading? How can you make your overall message more positive and beneficial? Can you argue more respectfully? Post more about the good things in the world and in your life rather than all of the things you don’t like? Talk about ideas rather than people? Are you doing anything to broaden your sphere and diversify it? Are you working to understand people who don’t look like you and don’t live like you? Are you helping others to better understand your world? I think the two things we can all agree on is that making things better is not going to happen in one magic moment, and it is not going to be easy. That is why I think it takes each of us—including you and me—working intentionally and positively, one interaction at a time. Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready to step up and do your part?

Own your sphere,

William

P.S. If this got you wondering about your influence and how you use it, please share it with those who might find it useful. Though this is about individual choices, it works best as a movement. Together we rise!