My heart feels unusually heavy this weekend. Two years ago today a beautiful young girl named Claire Davis lost her life to gun violence and her schoolmate’s rage. It happened at my alma mater, Arapahoe High School, in Centennial, Colorado. It had been almost two years to the day after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and not 18 months since the horrible theater shooting just across town, in Aurora. I remember thinking then, what is happening to us? How does this kind of thing happen so often, and what kind of pain moves people to commit such violence, against others and then themselves?
I remember high school with great love and (Warrior) pride. Classes were challenging but not overwhelming. Our volleyball team never had a winning season, but we had fun and learned teamwork. Our speech team, on the other hand, won consistently, and competed at State every year. The excellence of our choir concerts and musicals rivaled professional companies I have seen (no help from me). Some of my best friends are teachers I met at Arapahoe. Their dedication to education, of others and themselves, even now in retirement, inspires me. I had my core peer group (fellow nerds), but I was friendly with people in almost every social cluster. I was one of maybe seven non-white students in my class of 462, but I never felt singled out or threatened. Looking back, it was the relationships, as usual, that made my time at AHS special.
Today, I see so much more vitriol and violence in our world than even just 2013. Our relationships deteriorate faster than ever. We oversimplify our political views to post on social media, looking for the most searing and aggressive words to make a terse point. It’s as if we think 140 belligerent characters will make someone with an opposing view say, “Oh, of course, you’re right, I change my mind.” We reply to others’ combative posts impulsively, defensively, and with hostility. What good does this do anyone? It certainly does not lead to any meaningful discourse or mutual understanding. We write things on social media that we might never say in person, or at least not without thinking twice. As a result, we feel indignant, offended, and angry. We ‘unfriend’ one another on Facebook, narrowing our relations to the echo chamber of those who share our exact views, collectively deriding those who don’t.
There is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation, and the time and energy it takes to have one. It requires a certain degree of tolerance, and an unspoken contract of civility and courtesy. We must choose carefully with whom we are willing to undertake such a venture. And perhaps most importantly, we must be clear about our objective(s). Do we really expect to change someone’s fundamentally held political or religious beliefs? How realistic is that? What other purpose, what other good, could possibly come from such conversations?
I propose that we seek these personal interactions to deepen and strengthen our relationships—our connections. Social media, and probably media in general, constantly work to divide us. We need to sit down with one another to reunite, find our common ground, and rediscover our shared humanity. I believe this can only be done in person. It gives us a chance to practice our best skills in patience, curiosity, and withholding judgment. We must listen to understand, and not merely to reply or refute. In the best of these conversations, we ask more questions and make fewer sweeping, generalized statements. We avoid accusatory language, and say more, “Help me understand,” and, “What makes you think that?” The key is to really mean it, though—we need to honestly seek to understand our counterpart’s point of view.
In the best cases, we each walk away feeling seen, heard, understood, and accepted—even loved—despite our differences. We pledge to continue the conversation, seeking always mutual understanding, bringing always mutual respect. Let us start with our real friends. Let us make it safe for those closest to us to express their views without fear of ridicule and contempt. Let us request the same of them, and practice openness and reflective listening in the harbor of established connection. Emboldened with the courage to stand firm in our own beliefs while generously allowing others theirs, then maybe we can venture out into social media again, and serve to bring openness, generosity, and respect to our virtual relationships.
Maybe you feel confused—how did a post starting with the shooting at my high school end up as a plea for kindness on social media? I suppose blogging is, at times, an exercise in stream of consciousness. Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Your willingness to do so gives me hope that we can all move toward patience, generosity, and compassion.