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!

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