The Power to Heal or to Divide is in Our Hands

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Last night I noticed a couple of my [more social justice-minded] friends include a post about the events happening at the border (with the tear gas) in their stories, and their subsequent rage and disbelief as to how this could be reality. I could feel the sadness and anger begin to seep into my heart as well as I looked at the picture of the frantic mom fleeing with her children, and wished we lived in a world that was better at regarding and honoring each other’s humanity. I also did wonder what the full story was, what had happened to cause guards to throw painful tear gas in the direction of women and children?

This morning I saw a few more posts about it. Ones that listed different parts of the story, including a firsthand account from someone who lives 11 minutes from that border and was in the border line with his kids when this was going down, and who is friends with people in leadership on both sides of the border and with people who are committing their lives to caring for the vulnerable that find themselves seeking asylum with no success.

Between his account and the others I read, I gathered a few other details: that the scene didn’t resemble a war scene as some have been painting it out to be, and that it was Central Americans, not Mexicans, who had tried to rush past police blockades, and the tear gas was only thrown after some border patrol agents had been hit with rocks. Funny how quickly our feelings can shift on a story with just a few additional facts, isn’t it?

Is this scene heartbreaking any way you slice it? Yes. I’m not sharing this instance to incite a debate about which side was in the right and which was in the wrong. In my opinion, both literal “sides” could have done things better and more peacefully. Here is why I’m sharing this:

We’re in a period of history where we are more politically and personally divided than ever before, or at least it feels this way. (This feeling part is important). To me it’s not a coincidence that we also have the highest amount of personal platforms, “news” sources, and constant connection to everything that’s going on in the world. Pair that with a passionate generation who has full access to said platforms. The outcome can sometimes be emotionally driven posts or re-shares that we know deep down are going to stir up the hearts of people on both sides – whether that’s in passionate agreement with us, or in combative disagreement against us. Unfortunately this only deepens the crevice between groups of people and reaffirms the feeling of being on a “side.”

In my frequent thought-sprees on how we can begin to heal and unify as a nation, I can’t say that I’ve done much to solve this deep divide. But one thought keeps reappearing in my mind. And that is how words have such power, and with things that have power, much responsibility is required. What we may think is an innocent re-share or status update, is actually adding to the collective cries that either echo fear, anger, or “other-ness,” or do things to incite impactful change. The answer is definitely not to stop speaking up or to shy away from discussions with others, but I think the answer does lie somewhere in the recognition of the power our words can have in this current climate, no matter how big or small our platforms are, and then proceeding with thoughtful caution.

Here are just a few practical thoughts when it comes to balancing your words with responsibility:

1.    Have you read both sides before sharing a headline?

The truth is that for the most part, we’re all consuming news from people and sources that most likely agree with the side we’re already on. So they know how to get your attention and how to get you worked up in favor of their side. Take a quick moment to do some research on what the other sides are saying or sharing about the same story, even if it’s hard to swallow. Realize there are many good people on both sides of the issue and so instead of quickly rejecting what someone else might be sharing, think about how they might have come to the conclusion they did through the sources they’re consuming, just as you have.

Also, do a quick fact-check while you’re at it. I’ve been so disheartened to find stories being spread rapidly around the internet that I’ve been able to debunk as false by a quick search on Snopes. Please do your research before re-sharing a compelling-looking sound bite on Facebook.

2.    Do your words tear down someone else’s humanity?

Throwing in comments about someone’s appearance or using strong, hateful language about them, even when it’s in conjunction with disagreeing with something horrible they’ve done, does nothing to endear the other side to your argument. It most likely will just turn them away quicker. Stick to values you agree or disagree with and try to keep raw emotions to yourself rather than laced in your updates. 

3.   Be in relationship with people different than you.

I understand it’s not easy to just make a new friend in a completely different social circle. Or even to know how to find or start a conversation with someone that’s on a different side than you. But chances are that you have at least one person in your life that’s a different race/political party/sexual orientation/even gender than you that you can seek out and inquire about their experience when you find yourself riled up or stuck in your own arguments. If you don’t know someone different than you you can talk with in person, read a book by someone who believes differently, follow someone on Instagram that doesn’t look like the rest of your circle, listen to a podcast with opposing viewpoints, etc. The truth is that it’s hard to “hate” someone close up. We could have the strongest feelings in the world about something, but when someone we love gives their honest account and experience of their “side,” important shifts in our heart begin to take place.

The biggest takeaway should be that this divide we’re experiencing doesn’t have to feel hopeless. If we can become aware of the actions we’re personally doing to contribute to it (because most likely we all are on some level), commit to thoughtful sharing, and pursue diverse relationships, we might begin to see things shift in this hurting yet beautiful world of ours.