If we spend too much time watching cable news and Twitter feeds, the world looks like a giant dumpster fire burning out of control.
A year ago, that’s all I saw. We were a week into a new presidency that I couldn’t stomach or even fathom, and all I saw was an impending war for the soul of our country. I had my pitchfork out, entrenched and ready to strike. I’ve read the Facebook posts I made a year ago, and many of them are filled with the same things I saw in the world. Hate. Outrage. Pain. Division.
I was shouting into an echo chamber at some enemy that I didn’t even see. I was shouting to hear the echo of like-minded people, to know that I wasn’t alone in this confusing wilderness. It felt good to rise up, to resist. It felt like I was doing something in the face of the enemy.
I was also doing this because it was the safe place to be. By shouting inside the echo chamber, I was refusing to move into the intersection of our issues because it’s easier than navigating the congested traffic of real discourse.
“Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion.” – Brené Brown
I’d never been one to shy away from the fray. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a spirited discussion about important issues. I love diving into murky waters and coming out on the other side with understanding and compromise. But it felt like the middle of our discourse — the heart founded in mutual respect — was gone.
I knew good people, really good, caring people, who stood on the other side. Friends. Family. Colleagues. I could not understand how they could or why they would stand where they were standing — because the middle had vanished. We all appeared to be huddled on opposite poles of discourse.
A strange thing happened. Every time I would run into the enemy in person, I came away hopeful that we’d escape this morass in one piece. As individuals, while we may disagree, we were both closer to the middle than we’d admit inside our huddled camps of ideology. It’s rare to meet anyone — from the left or the right — that matches the stereotypes that we use to label each other.
“[Those] who had the strongest sense of true belonging stayed zoomed in. They didn’t ignore what was happening in the world, nor did they stop advocating for their beliefs. They did, however, commit to assessing their lives and forming their opinions based on their actual, in-person experiences. They worked against the trap that most of us have fallen into: I hate large groups of strangers, because the members of those groups who I happen to know and like are the rare exceptions.” – Brené Brown
My life, my outlook is markedly different today than it was a year ago. I still hold grave concerns about the emotional direction our country is headed. I will not stop advocating for policy and practices that I believe in. I am heartened by the reawakened activism and interest in our society.
At the same time, I’m more focused on finding real discourse and avoiding the trap of the echo chamber. It’s more uncomfortable than the warm cradle of like-mindedness, but until we step off our ideological icebergs, we’ll never rediscover the middle that is our common purpose.
The quotes from Brené Brown are from her 2017 book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. I read this book in October 2017 and it’s helped me adjust my approach to engaging in political and cultural discussions in ways that may be more uncomfortable to navigate, but strive toward more positive outcomes.