How to Talk to People When The Ship is Going Down and Everything is on Fire
So this week has felt like one long horror movie, only the doors are locked and they’re not letting anyone out of the theater. We’re just forced to watch as thing after thing after thing happens, and suddenly everything is exploding and we don’t even know where to look.
We’ve watched little kids be separated from their immigrant parents at our southern border and felt helpless. We’ve argued about whose fault it is on social media. We’ve seen the photos and tried to figure out where to donate and listened to the recordings of toddlers crying themselves sick because they just want their mama, their papa. I have felt emotionally exhausted all week, and I’m sitting on my comfortable couch in Kansas City. Trying to imagine how they must feel makes me physically dizzy. We are creating So. Much. Brokenness and trauma. Dismantling families like we sort through old clothes for donation: this one here, that one there. Send this one, keep that one, this one is a maybe. Cages full of kids with hearts full of breaks.
I’ve noticed the same fight break out on social media eleventy hundred times this week.
“They shouldn’t have come here, then none of this would have happened.” (As if it’s that simple when you fear for your life and the lives of your children every day in your own home.)
“It’s not hard to come here legally. This is their fault.” (As if it doesn’t cost upwards of $10,000 per person and can take years and years and years, and as if seeking asylum is illegal.)
“This is Obama’s/Clinton’s/Hillary’s/democrats’/immigrants’ fault.” (As if the current administration of our country had absolutely nothing to do with any of this.)
“Those photos are fake news and the detention camps are actually really nice.” (I won’t even touch this one.)
Some people have said some things this week that have stirred some pretty intense Big Feelings in me. And not good ones. Oh boy, have I done some cussing and some praying. But in my heart of hearts, what I really want is to speak truth to bullshit and love into the mess. Part of that looks like donating to RAICES and signing petitions for the ACLU and protesting and praying and dropping off socks and underpants and dinosaurs and slime for the kids who just arrived here by plane from the border. But part of it looks like amplifying the voices and experiences of the marginalized while still practicing being a peacemaker.
I have found that grace is the answer to most of my questions about how to love people in the middle of a big disgusting mess. When emotions are running high, it’s easy to let anger drive. Anger isn’t always a bad thing – it can lead us to fight for justice, right wrongs. It spurs us on and motivates us when we fall asleep in our complacency. My anger this week has led me to attend my first protest, and help organize two more. But unchecked, anger can also burn down our lives and the lives of other people. Social media is a big gathering place for anger and other Big Feelings. But do you know what anger doesn’t know what to do with? Kindness.
The other day, I got sucked into a heated debate on social media about what’s going on with these kids separated from their parents at the border. (Okay, I inserted myself into it. You got me.) Someone was wrong on the internet, and I couldn’t let that go, of course. I jumped in and dropped a link to an article that I thought would help, but it only made the person angrier. They didn’t like the source, saying it was biased against their side. I thought I had picked a pretty neutral source, but he wasn’t done – he got so mad that he started ranting about how “people like you” vote the party line and never do our own research. The conversation went something like:
Me: “Here’s a source that might help! (Link to article from the BBC)”
Friend of a Friend: “Haha, I can’t believe you just linked to that site. That website is so biased! People like you don’t bother to do any research. You are so brainwashed, you only agree with what your political party has to say.”
Me: “Hi ____, can I ask what party you think I’m part of? I’m actually registered as an independent, and I’ve voted for republicans, democrats, and third party candidates depending on the issue. Can I ask what news sources you consider to be unbiased? It’d be helpful to know where you’re coming from.”
FOF: “I’m not here to do research for you. You’re ridiculous.”
Me: “Well, for the record, I actually agree with you on ______, we just disagree on _______. Does that help clear up where I’m coming from? I can do my own research, just trying to figure out where you’re coming from. That’s hard to do when you have only told me what you’re against, not what you’re for or what you do believe. Does that make sense? But it’s also cool if you’re just burned out on it and don’t want to talk anymore. I 100% get that. This week has been extremely emotionally charged.”
FOF: “Well, I appreciate you explaining yourself more on how you don’t just vote with one party. I am actually really tired of talking with people who are so closed minded.”
Do you see what I see? Suddenly, he softened. He went on with a whole new willingness to see me as something other than his enemy – a complex and nuanced whole person – not just one of “those people.” All because I managed to – this time – reach for kindness rather than anger, even when he was rude and belittling and very, very wrong. Because I scrounged up every last bit of brave and thick skin in me and asked questions and listened instead of burning him down with my big feelings. I could have. Heck, I wanted to. But I wanted something else more: to create an environment between us that would be less like a brick wall and more like a real conversation. That was the only way he was ever going to really hear what I had to say. And the only way I know how to do that is by actively practicing being a peacemaker.
Now, let me clarify here that I’m speaking as someone aware of her own privilege. If you are a marginalized person and you’re angry about what has happened to you and your people, I am not judging your anger. Be angry. (Not that you need my permission.) You have every single right. I am not judging you if you cannot find it in yourself to be kind to people who are abusive to you with their words and beliefs. It’s not your responsibility to educate and reform everyone acting a fool on the internet. Instead, I’m primarily speaking to those who, like me, desire to use our privilege to ally ourselves with you and fight for justice out in the arena alongside you. Our white tears and white guilt do nothing – we need action steps. Practical ways of fighting ignorance and injustice and racism from the unique position of looking like the folks who perpetuate it. We need deeply effective strategies to subvert the narrative that “they deserve what they get,” that a human being can be illegal. I believe peacemaking and radical kindness are two of these strategies. Over and over, I’ve seen grace disarm and unclench and soften the very hardest hearts.
Peacemaking is different from peacekeeping. Peacekeeping would have been shutting my mouth and scrolling on, but peacemaking saved the conversation. Before our exchange, there was so much anger in the discussion being thrown around on all sides. Some was righteous anger, and some was revenge-motivated, frustration about being proven wrong or scoffed at sarcastically. But even the righteous anger was not being heard, because it blended right in with the rest of the angry thunderstorm. Good points were getting lost. Stories introducing valuable firsthand perspectives were being dismissed and ignored. Being brave enough to speak kindness to scoffers and truth to bullshit brought about a new story, a redeemed conversation, and a chance to connect and learn from one another rather than shooting at each other until we were all down to our respective scorched earth.
This is not easy – I fail at this much more than I succeed at it – but I continue to believe it’s worth trying.
So…how do we practice speaking peace into the middle of the mess? It’s usually possible to find SOME kind of common ground as a starting point, even with someone you seriously disagree with. Extreme exceptions aside, no one wants to hurt babies. We might disagree on the best way to ensure babies are not hurt. We might be educated by different sources and surround ourselves with different viewpoints on why the babies are being hurt, but that just means we hopefully have a greater abundance of ideas to work with if we can figure out how to put our heads together without killing each other on the problem of how to help the babies who are being hurt. And make no mistake – I don’t mean that because we are people of grace, that means we have to swallow all the toxic ideas out there and compromise ethically in the name of being nice and agreeable. No ma’am. Never. I’m just saying that chances are, the person you’re talking to has a way in, some common ground that you’re missing. They’re probably not actually the next Hitler, and so they can be gotten-to with a little creativity and a lot of disarming kindness. And even if the person you’re talking to actually is a total idiot and wrong in every single way, they sure as heck still won’t listen to you if you’re mean.
Jesus was really, really good at transforming conversations and shifting harmful power balances. One of His favorite ways to do this in the Bible was by asking questions. Sometimes when someone strikes their opinion like a match in front of us, we light ours up, too, but this only increases the chance of a house fire. Asking questions instead is like a surprise rainstorm. The other person forgets they were even holding a match. The questions I’m asking this week: Are we okay with separating children from their families? If we’re not, what are we going to do about it? If they try to derail you with their arguments but skip over the questions, just ask them again. Keep asking.
This Jesus way – it’s really hard. Meeting anger and vitriol with grace and kindness and patience is not the easy road. But it’s the road I want to be walking.
It’s those little everyday chances to reach for grace that begin to transform things. Little by little, this is how we can chip away at ignorance, intolerance, fear. We kill them with radical kindness, undeserved love, everyday grace. Not because we are good little nice people, but because we know the secret – that grace changes everything, and the truth will come out, and love always wins.