One More Thing (on Social and Political Change)

charles-darwin-sssshh-ofset-to-right-of-frameBecause of its tendency to polarize and alienate people, and how easy it is for online “discussions” to lose control to third/fourth/fifth parties, I have resolved to no longer engage in emotionally charged social and political discourse on Facebook (or social media in general).

This doesn’t mean I don’t have strong beliefs and opinions, or that I don’t care about voting or community activism. It doesn’t mean I don’t think speaking one’s mind is important. I think there are many people who are gifted at political discourse, activism, organizing and social theory, and they continue to share those gifts.

I have simply come to the conclusion that it is more beneficial and fruitful for me to have these discussions in an environment that is controlled, peaceful, and personal. It is way too easy for me to dehumanize  another when we use machines to communicate.

If I share something, I want it to be in the spirit of sharing what I learned, how something helped, edified, or challenged me, not as a means to shame my detractors.

(I have not “arrived” or perfected any of this. I’m writing this- all of this- for the same reason I write anything down- to hold myself accountable; to preserve my commitment for posterity.)

Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s my prerogative to make sure an online acquaintance changes his mind, or that a friend changes her opinion and votes for the same person I do. I am not obligated to answer for their choices.

The best I can do is set a watchman for my conscience, my feelings toward others, and my own behavior. I think the best way for me to change the world is to change it around me, through interacting with people and with my community at large.

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Some will disagree with me and take the big picture approach. Some will see things more the way I do. Both have their benefits. Both can and do have positive outcomes. One is just a better choice for my own peace of mind and relationships than the other.

With some professional guidance, I realized that If I focused the same energy I expend trying to convince others to see my way, if I channeled that into action, big or small,  my relationships and my community would transform. [Wow, I thought. What if all people had this approach.]

With all that said, it would be hypocritical for me to tell you who to vote for, how to voice your opinion, what to protest, how to act. When it comes to choosing your candidate, your cause, or your way to take action, there’s only one thing I can ask people I care about to do.

And it’s the same thing I’m asking of myself:

When you make your choice, do it with intention. Doing one small thing that you know will have an effect changes more than sitting idle for hours, stewing in anger and contempt. If your conscience tells you that something (or someone) is morally repugnant, align yourself elsewhere.  If you want to change a social or political reality, take an action that answers the call of your conscience. Whatever you choose to do, do it to strengthen your community, not to tear down someone else. While it’s always nice when others join you, sometimes they won’t. Don’t lose heart. Act in a way that leaves you at peace and doesn’t betray yourself. You can act big, or small. The important thing is to act from kindness, in earnest, and with empathy.

Here’s hoping.

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What’s My Motivation? Changing What I Share Online

The Internet: Part information superhighway, part Eternal Troll Cave of Fathomless Depths. I used to love it. As someone whose driving motivation was understanding and solving social problems, I saw Facebook as my personal megaphone. It was a towering soapbox  from which I could denounce the social/political/moral evils surrounding me.

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My Resting Scroll Face

I would type out a fiery diatribe and gleefully hit send, shocked when my condescending drivel wasn’t readily embraced by the masses. Yes, I would think, I’m making a stand. I’m speaking up for what’s right: me. 

Wait. Aren’t you a Christian? You guys are all about denouncing some moral evils, right?

Yes. I am called to put a stop to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to loving God and  neighbor. But I’m supposed to do that in my own life before I even think of “helping” someone else “see the error of their ways”.  Reminds me of a quote I saw today by St. Maximos the Confessor:

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Focusing on changing everyone on my News Feed for the better renders my own change null and void? Dag. Is it just me, or do the Saints straight-up roast people sometimes?

Beyond that, I’m starting to believe it’s impossible to have meaningful discussion [read: debate] on social media. Why?

  • I could be wrong. There, I said it. Hey, anything’s possible.
  • I can be right and still be mean or condescending about it. And that’s wrong.
  • I could assume someone I don’t agree with is bad or evil, without knowing all the facts (which I never will anyway). And that’s judging.
  • I will probably get angry more quickly (and for longer) online than I would in person. The vitriol/intensity of the Internet and the way opinions are written there makes it a breeding ground for angry, spiteful and otherwise violent communication.
  • It’s public. Eliminating the privacy of a face-to-face conversation almost guarantees that someone else will weigh in, take something out of context, gang up on one of us, and so on.

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When I disagree with, denounce, or vilify someone else’s perspective/political party/difference of opinion online, they can see it. [Even if I passive-aggressively Vaguebook about how wrong “some people” are on my own timeline.] And everyone else we’re friends with can see it, too. Not to mention our little tête à tête  is saved for posterity. Plus there’s never really been a time when I’ve thought: Wow. That gloves-are-off Facebook debate really brought us closer.

So, if I’m going to post something online, I start with asking myself something simple: why am I sharing this?

Is it:

  • Because I’m angry?
  • To declare how right I am?
  • To declare how wrong you are?
  • To make “the other side” [or people who identify with them] look bad, or foolish?

If the answer is yes, I need to re-think. As cheesy as this little mnemonic is, it’s really helpful for us social media mavens:

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The first time I saw this, I thought something alone the lines of: well, guess I have to delete Facebook and stop blogging. I didn’t blog or stir the pot on Facebook for months. I tried my hand at holding my tongue (my success varied widely from day to day). And while I try to be much more careful about the tone of what I post now than I used to, I still believe social media and blogging are powerful ways of sharing new ideas, and building connections rooted in empathy rather than same-ness of opinion.

Filtering what I share doesn’t mean I can’t post about tricky issues or things I care about, or that I’m suggesting Shrinking Violet is the New Black. My desire for a peaceful newsfeed does not cancel out my strong convictions. The key is changing the focus of the material I post from “what they’re doing wrong”  to “what’s helping me do better”.

What did this teach me?

How is this helping me be a better human?

What about this situation worries or troubles me?  

I know this is a problem. What is a solution I can realize in my day to day interactions and/or in my community?

 If my main goal really is to change myself for the better, I can share  things in terms of what I learned, or how something helped me change my perspective. If something is important to me, I can simply say that before sharing, without bringing what “some people” think into it. If someone misspeaks online and the error could hurt them or others, I can do my best to gently present my point of view.

All in all, I’m learning it’s best for my peace of mind (and my relationships) not to get too deep into a Facebook face-off. In general, I think the tricky things are best discussed with a friend, over cold beer and Hot Chicken.

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.

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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

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) 

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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.

Open for Service: an Opinion

If you are interested in one of these stickers for your business, go to openforservice.org

If you are interested in one of these stickers for your business, go to openforservice.org

I have tried writing many blog posts about this, but they have become too convoluted with legalese and political nuances. So I am going to start fresh.

It is my opinion that a refusal to serve someone on Christian principle is an oxymoron, and that it is not the most fruitful way to bear witness to the Faith. While Jesus certainly has standards that He expects people who choose to follow Him to observe, His service and love for others (from breaking bread to feed them, to healing their sons and daughters, to giving His life for them on the Cross) was never conditional on their belief.

In fact, it is likely that many of the people He fed, served, and healed were later in the crowds of onlookers screaming “Crucify Him!” Remember the 10 lepers? He healed all of them, even though He knew only one would return to thank Him. He did not withhold service or love, and did not expect His followers to do so, either.

The wedding cake scenario is being used as an example where the business owners believe that to provide a good or service is to participate or in some way sanction a marriage that is different from their own belief in what marriage is. While that decision is between them and their spiritual guide, my opinion is once again different. I would consider it a business transaction and nothing more. If sharing my understanding of marriage was a prerequisite for allowing people to buy and eat my cake, I might as well stick to putting up flyers in the fellowship hall, because the only people who share my understanding of marriage are other Orthodox Christians. But if I decided to serve the public, it would be just that, a decision to serve, without condition.

Many of the friends, family and loved ones who attended our wedding were not Christians. Some attended with their partners of the same sex.  And while I always rejoice when a friend shows interest in Orthodoxy, I fully recognize, respect and understand that their attendance of my wedding, giving of gifts, and participation in my wedding party were not statements of agreement with my theology or my understanding of marriage. They were there because of their respect, love, and friendship toward me. I am deeply grateful for this, and it carries a lot of weight in my discussions about these topics and issues.

I don’t own a business, of course. I know that decisions have a context, and actions have motives, and it’s exactly zero% my perogative to judge or condemn anyone. And I recognize that business owners are going to continue to make decisions without my input, as they have always done.

My view is admittedly simplistic, but it is essentially that businesses are civil entities. They are a part of a community, and access of all members of a community to the goods and services of a business is a civil right that should not be dependent on religious belief, sexual orientation, disability, racial/ethnic identity, and so on. (I have similar views on the right of everyone to obtain a legal, civl marriage.) For a business to claim they serve the public, but to exclude some parts of the public is discriminatory by nature. And while businesses can choose their customers, and discrimination may not be their intention, I believe that the refusal-to-serve approach will end up giving the businesses a negative reputation and doing more harm than good to their bottom line.

I think that any law that allows businesses to refuse service should also have provisions that guard against discrimination, and that  allow patrons who feel they have been discriminated against to take appropriate legal action (many RFRAs have this language, and some who do not- such as Indiana and Arkansas- are in the process of getting theirs changed).

What a business does is their business (just as the decision whether or not to support a business based on their practices is a choice I can and do make). But this debate has a lot of important questions driving it, including: what makes a business a Christian one? I would venture (perhaps with some repercussions) to suggest it is their service, and whether or not that service is provided with grace, kindness, and respect.

Every business and every owner will approach these situations differently. But in my own life? I believe I do not have the right to refuse service to anyone, but an obligation to serve, love, pray for and respect everyone.  The rest is up to God, and my neighbor. And in this I have peace.

You Just Got Served: the Good Samaritan Edition

As I was ruminating on current events, and the discourse surrounding them, I kept coming back to the famous parable from the Gospel of Luke:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘[love] your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” 

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed,  he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 

So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, NKJV)

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The term “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous with helping people in need or distress, with the moniker especially applied to those who do so without expecting anything in return (i.e. giving to charity, helping someone stranded on the roadside). Of course, these are good things to do and to continue doing. But the actions of the Good Samaritan can teach us a lot more once we think about how he overturns some of our most entrenched attitudes. Here are a few of the most toxic ways of thinking about people and situations that the Good Samaritan reverses with his acts of love:

Us vs. Them

Samaritans and Jews did not get along, and that’s putting it nicely. They despised each other (a very brief explanation of why can be found here). Jews would travel far out of their way on journeys to avoid passing through Samaria. They feuded bitterly with each other over their ethnic, cultural, and religious differences. So for a Samaritan to not only be characterized as a good man, but to help someone who was presumably a Jew (while a Jewish Priest and a Levite passed by), would have been a stark example of love, compassion, and empathy.

Our society, and sometimes our own choices and attitudes, often perpetuate an Us vs. Them mentality. What creates this otherness? Perhaps it’s because we lose our sense of  community.  Consider the religious law expert asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor”. This falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up”. A religious law expert was seriously questioning Jesus to find a loophole in the “love your neighbor” commandment?! News flash, dude. If you have to ask that, you either don’t know who your neighbor is, or you don’t want to know.

Of course, he got served when Jesus pointed out through the Parable that everyone we meet is our neighbor, and that to be a neighbor is to have mercy on everyone we meet. There is no us, there is no them, there is only our responsibility to each person, to all of our neighbors in this human community. It got me thinking: have I ever tried to find reasons not to love my neighbor? Because, surprise! None of them are valid!

Not My Problem

Often times–because the Us vs. Them mentality takes hold, it is easy to detach ourselves from the troubles of others, or of the world at large: that’s not my problem [because it affects “them”]. Whether “them” is a social group we don’t identify with, or just someone other than ourselves and our inner circle, it takes work- a series of intentional decisions and actions– to go from detachment, to compassion, to action– which is exactly what made the Good Samaritan so “good”.

He had absolutely no reason to stop and help. In fact, he had every reason to keep on going. He didn’t know the guy, and it was someone who he was completely different from (in ethnicity, religion, culture). Not to mention it was a graphic scene, it would cost him money, and it would require him going out of his way. Why should he invest time, energy and feelings in this guy? Clearly he was in a bad way– what if he deserved it? Wouldn’t it be better for someone else to handle this?

Served again. Along with “his neighbor”, the Samaritan had a broad definition of what counted as “his problem”: it seemed to be any problem he noticed affecting not just himself, but his neighbor [essentially anyone who crossed his path].

I can’t help.

Even if we recognize that all mankind is our neighbor, and their hurts and needs are our problems, it is easy to feel like we can’t help. The problems we observe might affect many of our neighbors, or one neighbor may have many problems we don’t feel equipped to solve. Here the Samaritan offers more wisdom: you can help. Just use what you have, do what you can, and reach out to others when needed. Sometimes we can’t solve an entire problem for our neighbor, but there are always ways we can help. It may be as simple as listening, saying a prayer, or affirming and validating someone. In any of those cases, a little bit goes a long way toward healing.

I can’t relate.

So, if our neighbor is supposed to include everyone, there are going to be times we don’t agree with our neighbor, or have so little in common with our neighbor that it feels like we can’t relate to them on any level. How can we help, how can we heal, if we don’t see something of ourselves in them? If we don’t feel like our neighbors are in the right– are we off the hook? If there is nothing about their problem or their situation that we feel deserves our time and attention, is that person still our neighbor?

Although the Samaritan was obviously kind and generous and did many things to help the man by the roadside, Jesus spotlights one characteristic, one attribute above all that made him a neighbor more than any single act: he showed mercy. Mercy is defined in two ways:

1. kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly

2. kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation

Both of these apply to the mercy shown by the Good Samaritan: he was being kind to someone in dire straits, and the person he showed kindness to was someone who he could–in a social context- have every reason to treat harshly.  His example is one we should all follow: in which the world is our community, every person in it is our neighbor, and in which we are called to help one another heal through [both kinds of] mercy.

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Food for thought:

What is the most challenging lesson of the Good Samaritan?

What is one way I have been shown Mercy (when I may have had reason to be treated otherwise)

How can I “go and do likewise”?

Opinions are People, Too.

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I haven’t blogged in a long time, because I have been afraid. Yes, afraid to do something I should be eager to do as a writer living in a free-speech loving country: I am afraid to share my opinions, and tell you the stories that form them. I have kept quiet for a long time about many things. But that doesn’t jive with me, turkey.  Because whatever else I have to be to pay the bills, I am a writer. Writing is what I do. I do it to make you think, make you feel, and [hopefully] make you smile. I have to do it. It feels wrong not to, especially when I am learning, struggling, and wanting to grow, since writing is the vehicle I use to do that. I have to speak up. I have to be myself. I have to tell people who that is, because I like her, and I am proud of who God has made her. There is a good case for keeping our mouths shut a lot of the time. But after much thought, prayer and consideration, it is time to break the silence.

Warning: these stories contain opinions that may not be agreeable to all readers:

  • Several months ago, I implied on social media that I think anyone should be able to get a wedding cake from anywhere that sells wedding cakes, regardless of whether I shared the same definition of marriage as that couple did. [My reason being, of course, that if a business owner could decide to deny someone else a good, service, or civil right based on a differing characteristic or belief, I could also concievably be denied civil rights, goods, or services by the same exact line of reasoning.] And there was a firefight. I mean, you would have thought I said I was a cannibal, and that you were next, buddy. The comments made me cry. I lost sleep. It was not an easy time.
  • A few weeks ago, there was a barrage of posts on my newsfeed about how [yes] all women have been victimized, objectified or abused.  Perusing some of the posts reminded me of my own experiences: growing up with a man who made ours a tumultuous house, being flirted with [in the classroom] by male teachers who were twice my age, being asked by random men for a “ride” because of my wheelchair. Remembering made me feel small and sad, and my heart went out to women.  But at the very same time, I was made aware through circumstance and conversation of the countless good men in my life, who have never treated me with anything but love, dignity and respect. Some of the most poignant, loving and heartfelt help I have had working through these things has come from the men in my life- one in particular. And my heart went out to them, too. Good men–no, great men–who were only seeing negative messages from the world at large. I wept for my friends, male and female, as I watched them victimized and villainized. I could not perpetuate that.
  • I have read things bemoaning government assistance, wondering why individuals who receive it have nice phones and televisions. I receive government assistance. I have a nice phone and a television. I also[gratefully] work 2 jobs. But I know people who can’t work for many valid reasons, and I think of them, how grateful they are for what they have, how freely they have shared with me of the possessions and resources such assistance has allowed them to have. I couldn’t agree with prejudice directed at people like those I knew. And iCouldn’t let someone who had no interest in learning about any other aspect of my life make me feel guilty for having a talking phone [I have to admit, it’s pretty neat].
  • I have seen posts about how a photo of me in my two-piece swimsuit might cause trouble in a marriage. “My husband shouldn’t have to see your boobs” it read. I agree, I thought. And he won’t, I can assure you. But he may have to see my opaque, normal-for-this-century swimsuit [gasp!]. And I have full confidence in his ability to continue to be lovingly and faithfully married to you after he does.
  • Just yesterday, I was accused of believing in “magic” because I have a deep and abiding faith in the sacraments and the healing power of the Church. I was singled out and belittled by a stranger without a second thought.
  • The same day, I saw the latest title from a popular Christian blogger: “If you want birth control, go buy it. Nobody is stopping you” he said. And I felt ashamed because I would not be able to afford birth control without the insurance [from the government] that helps me pay for it.

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Every single time I found myself in possession of a strong opinion after reading [or receiving the brunt end of] these social shenanigans, I simultaneously wanted to shut up about it and shout it from the rooftops. And I have kept quiet, for a long time.  Truth be told, I was a wimpy-wimpface who used my insecurities as an excuse to be so. But I had to cut loose [footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes!] Because my opinions are not just tenets or ideologies.  They are indicators of my feelings and passions, my shortcomings and wants. They remind me where I am on my journey of empathy, compassion, understanding and faith.  They are my stories. And coming to this realization has shown me something important.

Just as my opinions- when you read or hear them- point directly to myself and my circumstances, opposing viewpoints from people whose opinions differ from mine, are still glimpses of who they are. If I am angry at an opinion and I state that anger plainly and without tact, it will hurt the people attached to those differing opinions. It will make it a battle of correct and incorrect, instead of an effort to do the right thing.

To counter the knee-jerk reaction to talk about how right and awesome I am, I have tried a new strategy of late. I have intentionally read opposing or differing viewpoints, to get a sense of the stories people are trying to tell me.

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As a result, I enjoy reading about and discussing men’s issues, LGBT issues, minority issues, stories about the military, blogs by rabbis and Muslims, you name it. [And surprisingly, I have not turned into an LGBT Jewish Muslim man yet!] The whole thing has challenged me, taught me new things, and made me more aware of “the other side” of a lot of popular debates in the news and media.  I especially like to read opposing views from people I know. I can flex my empathy muscles and make them big and strong. Which is important because:

  • Everyone has opinions on everything.
  • Those opinions are strong, often because they are tied to a real-life experience the person has had, or a deeply-held belief or tradition.
  • There is much more to a person than their opinion on one issue.
  • People’s opinions change over time, and can even change as a result of an exchange of opinions with someone different from them.

And most importantly, the opinion I don’t agree with belongs to a person with a need, a hurt, or a story. A person I am obligated by my humanity and my theology to love, from right where they are.  Because that’s just the right thing to do, in my opinion anyway.