Part of the Story: Lego, Neil Gaiman, and the Importance of Inclusion

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The new wheelchair-using Lego MiniFigure (Photo by Daniel Karmann/AFP/Getty Images)

My friend Alex just sent me a truly wonderful write-up from the Guardian about the newest member of the Lego MiniFigure family, who happens to use a wheelchair. He will be a part of their Fun in the Park set, which you will be able to buy for me as a half-birthday gift this June.

Even though you can build your own Lego-Person-in-a-Wheelchair, people are rightfully stoked over this new arrival. Even Lego was taken aback by the enthusiasm. Why all the hubbub? Because making something widely available that represents a person with a disability as a typical member of the community is the type of classy move that should become normalized. Like opening the door for someone else, or wearing a monocle.

For many people with disabilities, it is still remarkable to see examples of our experience in popular culture that are not somehow tinged with pity, otherness, or negativity. Think of the movies, television, commercials, books, art, modeling, and photography you’ve seen recently.

When did you last see

Someone using a wheelchair, walker, cane, or crutches?

A deaf or hard-of-hearing person?

A blind or visually-impaired person?

An autistic person?

Someone with an intellectual disability?

Someone with an “invisible” disability?

A person with mental illness?

And what was their story like? How well and fully did you get to know them: their flaws, their quirks, their sense of humor?

It doesn’t work to have a person with a disability in every story, playing every role, etc. And I don’t consider myself someone easily offended or looking to pick a fight in that arena. But disability is a big part of our human story. So, I’d appreciate an acknowledgement of that fact that more than a handful of times a decade.

And the way a story is told is important, too. 2108198

To be honest, I’m still surprised every time I see someone with a disability represented in media, art or pop culture in anything other than a stereotypical manner. If the disabled character isn’t a token, a poster child, a weakling, a burden, an utter inspiration, or a saint, it’s safe to say I’m sufficiently shocked.

Playing a part in the pop cultural/social/artistic narrative- and the complexity/significance of that role- has far-reaching importance. When I see someone I identify with, I am reminded of my own role in the world. It is a welcome affirmation of my own significance my community, and in the lives of those around me. But when my experience is wholly absent from the most popular media, the most widely read stories, it is difficult to believe that society expects me to play an important part.

Of course, I know there examples and exceptions beyond our Lego friend. One of the more notable ones is Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. I won’t give anything away except the part that made me cry snotty tears (thanks, Neil). When Odd is offered a chance to have his “bum” leg exchanged for a “better” one, he refuses. It’s a pain sometimes, but overall, Odd likes himself and his life the way they are, weakness and all.

Odd shows us that the adventure of life should be inclusive; and that life is more about goodness than perfection. And Lego Guy reminds us that people with disabilities are pretty chill for the most part, and spend a lot of our time doing non-inspiring things.

But perhaps the most important thing Odd and the Lego Guy are teaching me is this: one sure way to fill the gaps of cultural invisibility is with creativity, with art, and with the truth of my own story.

My Prayers Are Enough (Sort Of)

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There is a disturbing phrase circulating in the aftermath of the most recent tragedy: (Y)our Prayers Are Not Enough. Arising from an (understandable) anger at seeing social evils and similar problems persist, it draws a false dichotomy between prayer and action, implying that you are either a person of prayer, or one of action. But the two are not now and never have been mutually exclusive. Prayer is an act of love for our fellow humans that is taken on the spiritual plane. And prayer is certainly indispensable to many people of action as they go throughout their lives. Of course I agree that it is not meant to replace interpersonal action. Christ commanded his disciples to pray AND act. Not to discard one for the other, more “real” or somehow more superior variety. Prayer is often misunderstood [only] as a means to change our circumstances, like some sort of wish-on-a-star to a Jiminy Cricket God. But it’s first and foremost meant to change us: to transform us and those we pray for with healing, peace, and strength. Is that really something we can do without?

To look at it another way: there are circumstances in my life and health in which the pain, difficulty, and frustration is ongoing. What if I blamed the  prayers of others for that? I still have cerebral palsy and some days it sucks: your prayers are not enough! My mental and emotional wellness are still a constant battle: your prayers are not enough! I am still looking for a job and have had more heartbreaking disappointments on that front than I can count: your prayers are not enough! That would be a ridiculous, smug response. And it would be false. I am able to keep going because my faith and joy and peace have not run out, and that can only be a result of my loved ones going to battle in prayer for my heart and soul. Prayer is an action. It is an act of love for our fellow humans. It is an act of faith. It is something we cannot do without in this world.

Of course, I am not saying that prayer is all we can do, or all we should do, or that only people who pray can do good and make a difference. If we feel our conscience calling us to civic action, we can meet with or write/call our local leaders. If we feel it calling from our community, there are numerous organizations for which we can volunteer that are healing and strengthening our social fabric. If we are very limited on time, we can work with our mentors and spiritual leaders to make sure we are taking action to love our family, friends, and coworkers, and live peaceably with them. There is always something we can do, and always something we should do, to love our fellow people.

Facebook and the share button make it so easy to either convince myself I am taking action, or that my neighbor is not (whichever makes me feel best at the time). If I wanted to, I could spend hours scrolling down and fuming about how little others are doing, or just how wrong they’re getting a social issue or problem. But what action would I be taking other than that of the Pharisee: thanking God that I am not like other men, especially not that one on my feed? Instead, what if I spent my energy actually talking to a friend that needs help, or volunteering, or figuring out how to budget for more giving?

I understand and respect that we will not all have the same gifts to help the world around us; we will feel different calls to action and respond in different ways. For my part, I will continue to pray and continue to pay attention to my conscience and follow its call to action. I will strive not to shame my friends and neighbors if I can’t tell what their acts of love are, or if their callings and gifts to help are different or “smaller” than mine. If I find an action to take, I will try not to despair if my neighbor’s action seems more sweeping and grandiose. I will do my best not to look at others in contempt and judgement, with suspicion and comparison. I cannot stop my efforts to pray and act just because others make different choices or have different priorities, and I cannot let my fear and insecurity that I am not enough immobilize me when I am surrounded by hurting people who need love, friendship and prayer.

**

If you are looking for ways to take action to honor the lives of the people who were lost in San Bernadino, there are many wonderful organizations supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that need volunteers, advocates, friends and allies. Here are a few, but there are many more.

The Arc (find a local chapter)

Sports 4 All Foundation

Best Buddies (look on the left sidebar to search by state)

Friends Life Community

Just Like Other Men: My Kick in the Pants from Thomas Merton

Sometimes, you need a kick in the pants.

And sometimes you get one.

Mine came a few nights ago, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee famously says, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men”. He even goes so far as to single out the Tax Collector praying in the corner nearby [especially not that guy- he’s the worst].

The problem with this Pharisee isn’t that he’s super religious, or too fastidious about keeping the Mosaic Law. The problem is the focus of his relationship to God: not his own sin and repentance, but to publicize and judge the sins of others, justifying himself by comparison (to people rather than God).  He’s not the only one: politicians do it, social media opinion leaders do it. And I do it, too.

After Bible Study this week, we had a discussion about not judging or shaming others for their failings, and meeting people “where they are” in their spiritual journey. We agreed that it was important to consider someone’s progress in terms of where they started, rather than where they currently are [for example, a person who had to pay his way through school and got average grades did not necessarily “do worse” than someone who made all As, but had everything paid for]. Feeling energized by the discussion, and filled with what I perceived to be righteous indignation, I said to my priest:

I just can’t stand those Bible-thumping, judgmental, Pharisaic religious fundamentalists!

After allowing me to vent for a few more moments,  and acknowledging where my feelings were valid, he calmly replied,”The trick is, we cannot judge the Bible-thumpers either.”

My brain then connected the following dots:

Wait. You mean judging people for being judge-y is still. . .judging them?

Yes it is. While there are many social and religious problems going on in the world and it is right to be concerned about them, my broad categorization of all people who come from a more fundamentalist religious background as judgmental Bible-thumpers, is in fact something a judgmental person would do [especially in light of the fact that I grew up thumping the Bible louder and prouder than most].

I was definitely humbled. Then- at Fr’s suggestion- I read the following passages by Thomas Merton:

If a man has to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, then I cannot truly love him. . .If a man has to be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to be black or white before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to belong to my political party or social group before I can love him, if he has to wear my kind of uniform, then my love is no longer love because it is not free: it is dictated by something outside my self. It is dominated by an appetite other than love. I love not the person but his classification, and in that event I love him not as a person, but as a thing. I love his label which confirms me in attachment to my own label. But in this case, I do not even love myself. I value myself not for what I am, but for my label, my classification. In this way I remain at the mercy of forces outside myself, and those who seem to me to be neighbors are indeed strangers for I am first of all a stranger to myself. – from Merton’s discussion of “The Good Samaritan”, emphasis added

The sin of classification is not the observing of basic differences, or in the preference of one ideology to another. The problem comes when I use someone’s classification as my reason for loving them (or not), rather than their humanity. This is convenient for me, since using their humanity as a reason to love them would mean I had to love everyone.

So do I choose to love everyone- regardless of how I or the society I live in (or ideology I agree with, or Church I go to) classifies them? Or do I only love people I like?

Okay, okay. I get it, Brother Tom. Kick administered to pants. But Merton wasn’t done dishing out the humble pie. The second thing I read that night was part of the account of his Louisville Vision, an epiphany he had about mankind while walking down a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky:

In Louisville, at the corner of fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation, in a special world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate and holy existence is a dream. Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others. (Merton, March 18, 1956, emphasis added)

What if- instead of the Pharisee’s approach-I took this one. What if this prayer- thank you God that I am just like other men- was in my heart, and realized in my life? What would that prayer look and sound like? And better yet, how might God dare to answer it?

 

It’s a Dirty Job, and You Rock for Doing It

My dad is a complicated man that I don’t write about much, in part because it takes a lifetime to figure out our relationship with our family, and in part to respect his privacy. However, I know one thing. My dad works. He works long. He works hard. And working and providing is his means of showing love and commitment to a family.

For as long as I can remember, my dad has worked what’s most often called a blue collar job: as a machinist at a factory. He works 12 hour shifts, and is on his feet the majority of that time. He looks at work as  a necessary part of life, where enjoyment is not a requirement. For my dad, work has always been borne out of necessity and social and familial obligations. And without people doing jobs like his, our factories could not run, and some of the most fundamental substances in our day to day lives would cease to be made and distributed.

Conversations with him about my work woes are not unlike those I have with one of my favorite priests, another southern man of about my dad’s age. Both of them have told me a number of time over the years, “If work was fun, they wouldn’t call it work.”

I’ve been thinking about them- and people like them of their generation, who are either unwilling or unable to retire- as I consider my own generation and the predicament in which we find ourselves. There is much popular rhetoric around “doing what you love”, “following your dreams”, and “finding/following your bliss”, yet many of us are stuck with student loans, poverty, and frustrating, fruitless job searches in our field. And for lots of us, retail jobs, service industry work, and entry level jobs outside our field are the only immediate and short term solution. They are the blue collar jobs of this age: the hard work that everyone needs done, few acknowledge or praise, and even few commit to doing.

So, while we may not be working in factories and the like as often as our parents, many of us still do dirty work, even though we want/are qualified to do something else. If you are in that situation: working in a service job, or on a cubicle row, or in a retail store, in order to meet your needs, listen now and listen good.

You’re doing what needs doing for yourself and/or for your family. You are working hard to meet needs of yourself and people you love. You are meeting vital needs within your community, without which many wouldn’t have the goods, services, and conveniences they depend on. And you need never be ashamed of that.

Obviously, if your job is damaging to your health and well-being in some way, it is prudent to come up with an exit strategy that makes sense for your needs [I had to do this recently, a decision that prompted my getting serious about my mental health, for which I am very grateful]. But it’s likely that your job is just somewhere you need to be to pay the bills and get/stay out of debt, and if that’s the case, don’t lose heart. Those goals are worthwhile and accomplishing them, even if it is through something commonplace, is worthy and wonderful.

Your career is just that, nothing more. If you have a career that does not have a creative outlet, you can still make time. Your job does not make you a sell-out by default. If your career does not align with your calling, this does not mean you have replaced one with the other. There is always someone in your peer group or your community who needs help, or a group to whom you can volunteer your time. There are ways of following your bliss and finding joy that are practical and everyday. If we focus on finding them in the everyday, we can learn to truly nurture and sustain our joy, rather than injecting it for a short-term rush through a couple of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If we look for it, we can find humility and simplicity in hard work, and that opens the door to a freedom that diversion cannot always afford us.

So, if you have ever sold me something in a store, poured me a drink, made me a coffee, served me a burger, or cleaned a home or business that I have visited: thank you for what you do. You are intelligent, valued and amazing for your hard work. You are the legs your community (and society) stands on, and I hope you know you rock for what you do. If you are a stay-at-home or single parent, your job is work and it is invaluable. If you are a student who has not been able to use your degree, your education will never lose its value, and whatever job you are working now is important.

Whatever your work is, it matters. Whatever society or your peers or anyone else tries to say to shame you into thinking your work has no value does not matter in the slightest. There’s no shame in a hard day’s work, and whatever you need to do to ensure your needs are met and you are able to share your free time with friends and family is worth doing. You are appreciated and your job, and the community you live in, wouldn’t be the same without the work you do. Thank you.

The Chief of Sinners: Sin, Judgement, and Responsibility

“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all long-suffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” 1 Timothy 1:12-16, NKJV (emphasis added)

“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”- Orthodox Christian prayer, recited before receiving Holy Communion (emphasis added) 

***

Who’s to blame?

Many assume when reading the oft-quoted verse from 1 Timothy (1:15) that the Apostle Paul was making a unique assertion that he is the chief of sinners, since he says so after describing his former life as a blasphemer, murderer and persecutor of Christians. Oh, look how humble he is. Isn’t it amazing? However, a closer look reveals it was already a trustworthy saying, likely being used in the liturgical life of the Church in light of our unworthiness to receive communion (as it still is now).

So in light of the prayers of the early church and the teachings of the saints who established and nurtured it, each Christian is the “chief of sinners”. He was not holding himself up as an exception, but an example of the outlook he expected his entire flock to have. If I am claiming to be a Christian, my apostolic instructions are to fully accept the truth of this in my life. Of course, this is not to suggest that it is godly or otherwise healthy to self-loathe [in the same passage, he also refers to God’s “exceedingly abundant” grace and mercy multiple times, and we should remember that same love and mercy is given to us].

To be the chief of sinners merely means that the only comparison I should be making to determine sinfulness is one: between myself and Christ. And finding the worst sinner between me and Jesus is kind of a no-brainer.

One of my recent posts was about influence vs. concern. The circle of influence is my own life and the things I can change, while the circle of concern is everything outside of what I can influence. To think of sin in those terms, the only thing I can really change is my own sin, so that is my primary responsibility. And its effects in my life are worse, more prominent, and more damaging than the sins of others.

But look what he’s doing- and we go to Church together!

Of course, if I am already comparing myself to Jesus, it will inform the way I see the sins of other Christians.  Jesus says in the Gospels that my focus should be on removing the plank from my own eye before helping my brother with the speck in his (Matt 7:1-5). Is he saying others in the Church don’t sin, or that I shouldn’t help my fellow Christians who are struggling? Of course not. But I should be making active efforts to repent and be healed of my own sins first. I shouldn’t proclaim disgust with sin only when I see it in someone else. If I do help someone I have to make sure I am mature enough to help, be careful of my motives and be willing to share in the burden of responsibility on my part (Gal 6:1-4). Long story short, no one is immune from the tendency to judge.

Okay. But really, whose fault is it? Theirs, right?

It only takes about 5 seconds logged into Facebook or in front of the TV to see the evil in the world. Every story seems to be worse than the last. It’s easy to blame the world for the condition it’s in; we chalk up the state of things to their violence, their hatred, their evil, their moral bankruptcy. If there is backlash for their choices it serves them right. If they are treated with lenience then there is no justice.

How I feel about the moral failings of others [and how I respond when sin is put on display for public comment] says a lot about the condition of my own heart and soul.

“The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”- CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

Does every article about the despicable dealings of the world make me happier not to be a participant? Am I eager to share the terrible story without bothering to fact-check it? If it turns out to be false, am I grateful, or angry?

If I am self-satisfied when I see the failings of someone whose values are opposed to mine, there is something wrong with my values. If I am first in line to shame their behavior, I cannot love them. Do I get a sick sense of pleasure from how right I am or how wrong they are? If so, I am just as devilish.

In the same way I am able to make the right choices, it is very easy for me to sin. And while I may sin in different ways from someone else, it is no less bad when I do it. Furthermore, although I can help others to change, I cannot truly judge them. Not because I can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, but because I cannot be sure that my judgement would be the same one Jesus would make. Thus as his follower who is meant to reflect him to the world, my goal should be love, prayer and repentance on behalf of all. Only when I have drawn others to him through love and prayer is it possible for change and healing to take place. Without focusing on my own sin first and foremost, I cannot love. And without love, I am nothing.

One Thing is Needed: Thoughts on Mary & Martha

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”- Luke 10:38-41

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Sometimes, if we only glance at it, Jesus seems to be picking on Martha in this Gospel reading. So it is good to remember that, along with their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha are both saints. Each was a servant to Christ and remained devoted to him throughout their lives. No doubt, he loved everyone in their family dearly and equally. Like any sisters, Mary and Martha probably had a little bit of a rivalry. But the variety in their personalities meant that each brought different strengths to the way they related to and interacted with the Lord.

Notice that Martha welcomed Jesus into their home, and was dedicated to serving him and making everything the best it could be for him as their friend and guest, as their Lord and teacher. In addition to her gift for showing hospitality, she is clearly a woman of action. Action and diligence are certainly keys to a faithful life. With all these things considered, there is much to imitate in Martha’s example.

Martha was right to want to use her talents to prepare for Jesus and his visit. Her issue was never her service. It was that she became distracted and troubled with the many things on her plate. It was that she fell into the trap of comparison. And in the midst of the blessing she had been anticipating so greatly, she had not paused to enjoy and be thankful for the present moment. And who can’t relate to Martha? I compare myself to others constantly, often miss out on the [very apparent] gifts in my life, and can hardly be awake without being anxious and troubled about many things.

So Jesus was not so much making an example of Martha as helping her gain perspective. One thing is needed. I have often puzzled over this. Mary was doing several things. She was present with Jesus. She was focused. She was listening to his words. What is the one necessary thing she was doing?

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Rather than falling into the traps of distraction, comparison, and worry, Mary had chosen friendship with Jesus. Martha certainly loved him, and no doubt she was motivated by at least in great part by her love to make the house ready for his visit. But somewhere along the way, she seemed to forget the material point: he was already there, in their midst, waiting to spend time with her and her family.

I was once  lamenting my difficult grasping a teaching of the Church related to Mary, the mother of Jesus- and I was going round and round with my priest about the hows and whys and what-ifs when he looked at me and said in his typical, matter of fact way, “She is a person, not a theological concept. Get to know her as you would a person.”

The same, of course, is true for Jesus. It’s very easy to throw around the phrase “relationship with God” or “relationship with Jesus” without actually cultivating one. Like Martha, I become so focused on my checklist, on getting to a place where I am “good enough” or “ready enough” to pray or go to Church that I forget it is possible to pray at any moment. I treat Jesus like a theological concept for me to understand the ins and outs of, without contemplating what he is like, what makes him happy, what hurts him, or the unique gifts with which he fills my life on a daily basis.

We have the friends we do not because of fear, obligation, or because we have reasoned our way to an understanding that the friendship is the correct choice. We are friends because of the bond we share with them. The love that we experience with our friends is what keeps us coming back to one another. We want to get to know them, we ask them questions, we tell them thank you, we give them the gifts of our time and attention. We are not quick to doubt them, and we are certainly not afraid that at any moment they will leave or abandon us. We trust them. And when we are having trouble with that trust, we talk through it. We don’t walk away at the first misunderstanding. And the more loyal and loving a friendship is, the more we are willing to do to grow and nurture it.

Mary had the one thing that was needed, a desire to be friends with Jesus that she put into action. Her contribution was a small one, but Jesus recognized the beauty in it. And he held it out to Martha, not to chide her, but as a gentle reminder that her company was wanted and valuable.

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Small Things/ Great Love

A couple of months ago, while talking to my priest. I was doing my usual: unpacking my laundry list of worries about life and the cosmos. And I don’t just talk about my worries, y’all. I pile them up. I stack them carefully, one on top of another, like scary, toxic Fear Pancakes:

Well, what about racism and police brutality?

What about global warming?

What about natural disasters and the end times and the future and GMOs and- and- and. . . 

You get the idea. We’ve all been there: that point where we are literally Can’t Even-ing because the Whole Entire Flip-Flappin’ World is just so Out-Of-Its Mind-Crazy. But I had stayed there in that state of mind and pitched a tent. I scrolled through (and wallowed in) the misery of the world and drank up all the injustice I saw in a medium where [more often than not- I know there are exceptions] no direct action can be taken by me to fix the problem.

For an aspiring social activist, I was pretty immobilized But that’s what happens when exposure is equated to involvement. The choir and I took turns preaching, we all shouted AMEN. I wrote the perfectly researched comments that silenced my opponents. I had become callous in the name of caring. I had replaced engaged with enraged. And I was beginning to drown. In fact, I noticed that the discourse on Social Media was simultaneously doing the following [and on a 24-hour, ever refreshing loop]:

Demanding I care passionately, constantly

Demanding I demonstrate I care in a specific way

Heavily implying [or outright stating] that to the degree I didn’t post, discuss, or engage in a public forum, I didn’t care.

Is it just me, or does the News Feed turn social causes and opinions into that horrible snob in every 80s coming of age movie? You know, the one who pressured their boyfriend or girlfriend with the words “You would if you really loved me”.  So much of the rhetoric on The Book turns everyone into That Guy [or Girl, anyone can be a jerk]. I see it happen all the time.

And if I’m being honest, I’ve been That Person often, and I’ve done so in the name of being correct, open-minded or [worst of all] theologically sound. I’ve done it for the recognition, for the praise, and to prove my own moral amazingness. And that both humbles me and grosses me out.

While it’s a great tool for fast communication and spread of good ideas and causes, Social Media and the Internet can also increase feelings of alienation, polarization [us vs. them], and snap judgement.

What- in a normal conversation- would amount to “We don’t see eye to eye on this, but I know from our other conversations and interactions that you are not, in fact, a soulless monster, but my friend” becomes “OMG U FASCIST I HATE YOUR STUPID FACE AND I HOPE YOU FALL DOWN A WELL!!!!!!!!”

So what’s changed? Am I off Facebook? [Girl, please- it’s open in the next tab.] I did- however- find a more realistic way of looking at it, and at the whole idea of social engagement.

My priest-remember him? the patient guy at the beginning of the story?- told me about something he read about that helped him not to become overwhelmed, hate everyone, and spend the rest of his life crying [paraphrasing there]. He told me about the Circle of Influence: areas we can actually change and influence vs. the Circle of Concern: the big, ever-present problems of the world.

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According to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the most effective [and/or proactive] people focus the majority of their time on their Circle of Influence, and far less on their Circle of Concern. This not only made total sense to me and struck me as a really healthy way to be,  it helped me realize that social media, and media in general, distorts things such that our Circle of Concern is either presented as identical to our Circle of Influence or vastly more important when it comes to changing our circumstances, when it’s really the other way around.

“Imagine,” Father said, “what it would be like if you took that energy for those causes you cared about and put them into action in your community and in your day to day life.” I  could write a letter to the editor, have a conversation that promotes empathy and understanding of someone different than me, treat a friend who is struggling financially to a meal, recycle, look someone in the eye and tell them they matter. The wonderful paradox is: I can do almost nothing to solve the big problems of the world, but the “small” things I can do that would truly make a difference are in fact vast, endless, and ever-evolving.

What if I- what if we all- took that approach first and foremost? Would all social problems be eliminated? Probably not. Would action be taken consistently, and would things change? Definitely. And that seems like what all us are truly after.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta changed the way the world views poverty, service, and love. She transformed the lives of countless people with her work, and continues to do so with her teachings. Yet she did not use a computer, and rarely traveled outside of the area where she lived. Would we dare say she didn’t care?

Even contemplating shifting my focus from “great things” to “small things with great love” has been immensely freeing. To do so helps me see more clearly how much I am loved. I realize more clearly what I can do for others.

I believe that thinking and acting in our sphere of influence- doing small things for our friends, enemies, neighbors, communities, opponents and compatriots- deliberately and consistently with great love will shift our connection to humankind from virtual to reality.

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What do you feel connects us to one another? What harms that connection? What helps it?

What small things have been done for you with great love?

What small thing can you commit to doing this week for someone that you love? For someone that you don’t always agree with?