Speak For Yourself

One of my many bad habits is spending too much time scrolling through the comment sections on controversial Facebook posts and internet news articles.  I know what I’m going to see will often disgust and anger me, but sometimes I do it anyway, in the vain hope that this time I will finally see some sensible remarks and reasonable arguments.  (I would love to say that this means I’m an optimist, but I think it really just means I’m the sort who tends to repeat her mistakes.)  Still, even bad experiences can be educational and I have learned a thing or two while wading through the muck and mire of on-line commentary.

First and foremost, lots of people simply can’t stand the idea that there are those who disagree with them, on anything, and the very idea of it sends them into a frenzy of self-righteous rage.  Which they then need to express, as often as possible, in case someone missed it the first few dozen times they vented in cyberspace.  The second thing I learned is more subtle, so it took me a while to spot it.  But eventually I noticed that people put way more time and energy discussing what they believe their “enemies” think and feel than they do in expressing their own opinions.

Phrases containing the word “they” dominate the threads, and are inevitably followed by all kinds of nasty statements.  “They” don’t care about the poor; “they” hate America; “they” have no sense of personal responsibility;  and so on and so on.  It doesn’t matter if the people commenting are conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, black or white, urban or rural, they all seem quite sure they know exactly what those “other” people are thinking, and they despise them for it.  Which isn’t exactly a recipe for world peace.

I know that we are living in scary times and that there is much going on around us that can make us feel angry and afraid, and that we all want our voices to be heard.  And we all do have the right to make our voices heard.  But I think that the trick is to stick to expressing our own beliefs rather than trying to put words in other people’s mouths and thoughts in other people’s heads.  Because unless we have asked someone who is different from us what he or she thinks, and then actually listened, really listened, to their answer, the fact is that we don’t have any idea.  I don’t know what your experience is, but whenever someone else tells exactly me what I believe, they are usually wrong.

I think the best thing we can do is voice our own concerns and express our own ideas in the hope that they will make a difference.  And I believe that instead of saying “They believe such and such,” it’s so much more effective to say “I believe in such and such,” because those words communicate rather than alienate.  Mostly, I believe that if we truly want to be a part of fixing this broken world, we need to learn to simply speak for ourselves.

Do Unto Others

As a general rule, I’m very suspicious of over-simplification.  I rarely see anything in stark black and white, preferring instead to examine the various shades of grey that exist in between two opposing sides.  I think that most people and most situations are not only rather complicated, but also usually evolving in new and different ways that defy simple classification.  That being said, the older I get, the more I realize that in an increasingly complicated and angry world, there is one very simple rule that almost always applies:  treat other people the way that you want them to treat you.  (Also known as “The Golden Rule.”)

The issues that we face in our lives, both on a personal and public level, can be unbelievably complex, and often seem overwhelming.  And I don’t believe the day is ever coming when good people will always agree on everything, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned they happen to be.  But I do believe that when we are deciding how to speak to or treat another person, we can just take a minute to ask ourselves, “if this situation were reversed, how would it make me feel?  Would I like it if someone spoke that way to me?  Would I like it if someone treated me that way?”

Would we be so quick to post that snarky political meme on social media if we took a second to consider how we feel when someone makes fun our our political views?  Or worse, makes it clear that they consider everyone who voted the way we did to be either evil, an idiot, or both?  Do we like it when someone makes sweeping generalizations about our religion (or lack thereof),  especially when the generalizations don’t match what we actually think or believe?

On a more personal level, do we like it when someone vents their anger on us?  Do we appreciate it when someone (oh, so helpfully) points out our every single mistake?  Do we learn anything when someone else constantly preaches their point of view, and never once asks what we think?  Or worse, assumes that they know exactly what we think, and why, and proceeds to tell us how wrong we are?  Is it helpful when someone trivializes our fears?

People are complex beings and the opportunities for misunderstanding, hurt, and anger are staggeringly abundant.  Our lives are complicated and sometimes our problems are overwhelming.  So it seems to me that the simplicity of “The Golden Rule” is a gift to us, and a guide that can help us navigate the storm.  We just need to try, as often as possible, to treat other people the way we would like to be treated ourselves.  It won’t solve all our problems, but I honestly believe it would go a long way toward calming the waters for everyone.

Speak Gently

img_1716Remember that old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all?”  Personally, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, because I thought that there were times when I just had to speak up, even if what I had to say wasn’t particularly nice.  So when someone made me mad, I vented about it to someone else.  When I saw something that I thought was unjust or illogical, I was quick to complain to anyone who listened, before I even took the time to make sure I had my facts straight.  Often, my words were not at all nice, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times they have come back to bite me in the butt.

Sometimes I found out that the person who made me angry had perfectly good reasons for their words or actions.  Other times I discovered that what I thought was unjust or illogical made perfect sense once I had all the facts of the situation.  People I thought were uncaring or incompetent have surprised me with their helpfulness and competence once they were given a chance to do so.  And in each of those cases, I was left wishing fervently that I had kept my big mouth shut.  Especially when I knew there was a very good chance that the person might discover exactly what it was I said about them.

Even those times when whatever I happened to be complaining about turned out to be true, once I calmed down, I usually wished that I hadn’t been quite so outspoken in my criticism.  Sometimes people are doing the best they can, even if they aren’t living up to my standards, or doing the things that they are supposed to be doing.  Harsh criticism rarely motivates anyone to do better, and treating someone like an enemy can often turn them into exactly that.  In a world where most good things are accomplished through understanding and cooperation, creating enemies is rarely a good idea.

I’m far from a perfect person, and I know there will always be times when my temper gets the best of me and I say things about other people that I shouldn’t.  But I also know that this is something that I really want to work on, because life is so much easier when I don’t have to worry about what I’ve said, because my words were not hurtful.  I can be honest about a problem that needs to be solved, and I can speak against an injustice without being hateful, snide, or smugly superior.  There are many ways to speak the truth, and some are better than others.

We live in a world where technology often spreads our words far and wide, and many of us live in a nation that is going through a particularly contentious time.  Which is why I think that it’s more important than ever that I do my very best to keep my words gentle.  I may not always succeed, but I promise I’m going to try.

Sometimes It’s Okay To Be Different

I was wasting time on Facebook the other day, aimlessly scrolling down my newsfeed, when I saw a post about working mothers.  The point was basically that working mothers need help and understanding, rather than judgement, from the stay-at-home moms, and was followed by the usual long stream of comments.  I should have known better than to read them, but when I’m trying to avoid my “to do” list, I never ignore a perfectly good distraction.  So I found myself reading the predictable comments where working moms accused the stay-at-home moms of being cliquish, over-priviledged and unambitious, while the stay-at-home moms accused the working moms of putting their career before the well-being of their children, not being involved in their children’s schools  and being condescending to those who stayed at home.

Sadly, none of this was new.  The same arguments and accusations were being tossed around when my own children were small, which was a long time ago.  I found it depressing that so many young women still hadn’t learned to simply respect that mothers tend to chose what is best (or necessary) for them and their families when they make their career and child-rearing decisions, and that it’s not helpful to trash talk those who make different choices.  Depressing, but not surprising.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect mothers of young children to be respectful and considerate of those who make different choices and have different beliefs when so few other people show respect and consideration for those who are different.  We live in a society where attacking beliefs that are different from ours has become the norm.  If someone’s political or religious views are different from ours, they are fair game for any ridicule or criticism we can heap upon them….or so it would seem from watching cable news shows, reading the letters to the editor in the newspaper, or reading the comment sections on Facebook or internet news posts.  The message seems clear:  only those who think, look and act just like us are acceptable.

Personally, I find that message unacceptable.  Of course I like my own opinions best; who doesn’t?  But I’ve lived long enough to realize that I don’t want to limit my relationships to people who always agree with me.  I have friends and family from almost every religious point of view, and definitely from every political point of view, and I value all of them.  My only requirement is that they don’t attack my views, and that I don’t attack theirs.  We may discuss our different beliefs respectfully, or we may just tactically “agree to disagree,” depending on the issue and our personalities, but we can, and do, stay in relationship with each other.  At our best, we even learn from each other and grow a little bit wiser and a little more tolerant.  Sometimes, I’ve even managed to admit that I might be (gasp) wrong…just once in a while, of course.

Not all the comments following the post about working mothers were negative.  Several suggested that the best thing to do was simply realize that all the mothers were doing their best to be good moms, and to stop judging each other and start trying to be be nice to each other.  They pointed out that a little understanding and kindness can go a long way.  Call me naive, but I couldn’t agree more.