A dark cloud has followed me around this week. Feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and despair have figured prominently in my days. I’m disheartened. The terrorist attacks on Paris were a painful reminder of our vulnerability and the fragility of life. It can all be over in a moment. The attacks also showed vividly how a force of evil can be the dark, scary monster lurking in our collective closet, something we can all rally together against. And though the terrorism hurt my heart, it has not been the darkness that has been my companion through the week (sadly, the regularity of mass killings in our society has numbed me a bit, making me better able to bounce back from their shock).
No, the disappointment and sick-to-my-stomach despair I have been carrying around have been caused not by terrorists but by my own countrymen, my acquaintances, even my own friends. My Facebook newsfeed is a storm of anti-refugee sentiment. People are shouting (in their Facebook voices): “Lock the gates!” “Refugees are terrorists!” “Muslims keep out!” “Not in MY state!” They are calling for the President’s head because he simply suggested we keep our hearts open to these people who are literally without a country due to the atrocities and widespread destruction in their homeland. They literally have nothing left, and yet the level of negativity toward them is absolutely off the charts. Honestly, it breaks my heart.
It pains me not simply because innocent people in dire straits are being subjected to intense bigotry based on their religion—though that would be reason enough to hurt my feelings—but mostly because it is happening in my Facebook feed. In other words, my ‘friends’ are the bigots. Like most people, my Friend List is a huge mix of people who are from my hometown, my extended family, or other stops along my path. Some of them I know well, some not at all, and everything in between. But somehow, one of us invited the other one to become ‘friends,’ and the other one accepted. I have to take some ownership there. So now I have these people in my little web–some of whom I was just last week liking their photos of their kids’ swim meets or their vacation or whatever–who are unleashing all manner of ignorance and negativity upon me in the form of their posts and shares of videos and memes. It is a gut-punch. It feels like my house is infested with fear and hatred, and I have the guilt of someone who allowed it in by creating the group in the first place. I feel dirty.
I have gone through my own evolution of reactions to the ignorant posts as the week has progressed, something like the stages of grief. At first, I was in denial. When I saw the first few, I just shook my head and tried to pass them off as someone who was just unusually misinformed on the situation. I made sure I read up a bit more on the real situation to be sure I had my facts straight. When more posts came in, I started to see the seriousness of the situation. It wasn’t just a random extremist. I began re-reading them several times, angrily rebutting the bigotry and misinformation in my mind. Pretty soon it felt like bombs were falling on me from everywhere, and I started to become numb to it. I tortured myself by reading the comments after the hateful posts, which, of course, just piled it on thicker. I felt helpless. What could little old me do in the face of such darkness? My stomach was actually sick from it. Psychologically, I went into the fetal position. I went to bed that night a beaten man.
When I woke up the next day, my mind had cleared just enough to resolve that I had to do something to feel good and authentic again, something that proved to myself I wasn’t yet buried by the darkness. Scrolling through my newsfeed, I soon came across a meme from a ‘friend’ (who I don’t actually know) that was both false and totally mean-spirited. Before I blocked him, I commented on his post: “Do you actually think about these things before you post them?” His response: “Facebook is supposed to be fun.” Enough said.
Later that day, another ‘friend’ shared an article and her own rant about how all of us soft-hearted people should be forced to house these terrorist refugees in the article so that we would learn our lesson. In my new resolve, I read the article with an open mind and found that this was probably not the best piece to back up her opinion, as it pertained to Americans who were leaving our country and going to Syria to join ISIS. I decided that, even though her emotions were already clearly charged up and her opinion decided, I would still respond in a neutral yet authentic way. My comment: “This article is about AMERICANS traveling to Syria. I’m guessing the refugees would like to avoid these folks as much as you would. Perhaps learning a bit more about the atrocities happening there and the unlivable conditions might give us all some more compassion toward these people who have nowhere to go.” Her response: “Zero background checks. That’s all I need to know.” Apart from that being false, it was clear that her mind was made up and my energy best spent elsewhere. Before she was unfollowed later that day, she had posted a harmless anti-Obama meme meant to be humorous—which I don’t mind at all—and then a twenty-minute, extremist, rock-video style video meant to frighten everyone into shutting out every future refugee from anywhere (as many of the folks in the video were definitely not from Syria).
It was then that I decided that I cannot have a personal exchange with every hate-monger, fear-monger, and misinformed person out there. Sure, I can block and unfollow, and I can comment where I think there are ears that might hear, but it isn’t in me to squabble continuously. Thankfully, in the midst of all of the dark posts, I found something else that resonated with me. Another ‘friend’ of mine, herself in a minority group that has dealt with hatred and ignorance aplenty, posted a very personal message of how pained and disenchanted she was by the darkness that had consumed her own Facebook newsfeed, to the point that she would no longer be on it for a while. It sounded like the way I was feeling the day before. I sent her a short note of support, and suddenly my burden felt a little lighter. Later that night, I found an article and a meme that I thought would help people understand the situation of the refugees more clearly and shared them, and I have since shared a video that will hopefully open people’s hearts and minds regarding Muslims in general.
Much more than those shares, though, is that I have combed my newsfeed for posts that are positive and uplifting, and I have made it a point to like and comment on them, to thank the person for sharing. I have especially made it a point to send support to people who seem to be feeling the way I was—overwhelmed by the hate and fear-based posts—to let them know that they are not alone. It is no fun to be alone in the dark and under attack. In these attempts to connect with and support people who are leading with open hearts and open minds, I have found myself and my voice again.
“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” –Father James Keller
How about you? Which emotions are driving you at this unique point in history? Open up your journal and really get down to the bare essence of what is in your heart. When you think about the situation with the Syrian refugees, what feelings well up? Sympathy? Suspicion? Sadness? Self-preservation? Openness? Guardedness? Are you able to separate your feelings about the refugee situation with your feelings about recent terrorist attacks? Some people say that our attitudes and actions come from one of two places: Love or Fear. In this situation with the refugees, which one do you think is driving your position? Compared to the people around you, are you closer to the Love end of the spectrum or the Fear end? How do you deal with the people on the opposite end of the spectrum? Do you try to state your case and get them to change their mind (are you calm or passionate in your pleas?)? Do you simply avoid the topic or ignore their comments that oppose yours in order to keep the peace? Do you block and unfollow people? Whichever way you approach it, how does your response make you feel? Are you okay with it—proud of yourself, even–or do you feel small and inauthentic, perhaps frustrated with yourself? Do you stand up to some and let others go? How do you decide? What about when it comes to those who are on the same end of the spectrum as you? Are you more willing to speak up around them? How openly supportive of them are you? Do you know someone whom your opinion inspires? Are you proud of that and the example you are setting? What can you do today to bring more love, more hope, and more light to our world?
Be a light, always a light,
P.S. To live our best lives, we need to know ourselves better. If this letter helped you to better know who you are, share it with the world around you. Many thanks!