“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”Mahatma Gandhi
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.Walt Whitman, O Me! O Life!
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
One of the things I find fascinating about the digital era is that people do not even attempt to be persuasive anymore. I see this particularly in friends and relatives that have different political beliefs. They don’t interact with people they disagree with as if they wanted to persuade them to believe something else. They don’t try to make an intelligent, factual case or even an emotional appeal. They’ve all become trolls, trying to dig under someone’s skin with remarks they fully understand to be offensive or irritating. In fact, that pretty much sums the matter up: Many people want to be irritating these days, not persuasive. They want to “score” points on some fantasy abacus. Why?
And that carries over into all facets of living. I’d say this is a lesson learned from participating in social media, but I’ve noticed that even habitual “lurkers” – people who do not write stuff on social media platforms, but merely consume what other people have written – act just as much like trolls in real life as the most aggressively online personalities. Like I said, it’s fascinating.
It’s a difficult aspect of living to explain to children, however, especially if you want to raise children who are optimistic about the future, who have good values, and so forth. They’ve known nothing except a digital existence, but they are innately confused by the misery it entails because it’s an artificial and unnatural misery.
I brushed off my responsibilities this afternoon and worked in the garden. Our daughter, who has recently wrapped up third grade homeschooling, was riding her new bicycle around in the neighborhood. It was a beautiful day and everyone was doing something that made them happy.
Apparently, when I went inside for a spell, something bizarre happened.
She was riding her bicycle – a mountain bike with gears and hand brakes, gadgets that are still unfamiliar to her – down the sidewalk when she heard our neighbors’ garage door open. She thought they were backing out their car, which we had previously warned her about. “Not everyone looks for a little kid on a bike when they are backing out,” we said, “so be sure not to be behind them when this happens.” Sensing imminent danger, she crashed her bicycle into the neighbors’ grass instead of riding behind their garage. (Obviously, we need to work on that.)
These folks were not backing out their car, however. They were walking out to do whatever in their yard. They saw her with her bicycle in their yard and started chewing her out for messing with their lawn. She tried to explain her logic, but they were having none of it. She returned home upset and devastated thinking she had done something wrong.
As our neighbors are an elderly couple, I listened to her story with a suppressed chuckle, wondering how I was going to explain the “get off my lawn” phenomenon to an eight-year-old who tends to think her grandparents hung the Moon. But I remembered that the man who lives in that house hates my guts. He is on the board of directors of our entirely too legalistic homeowners’ association. These are people who think they should be able to regulate every new flower pot someone puts in their front (or back!) yard. And I am the person who calls them “yard fascists” to the other neighbors and plants whatever I want. Boy, he must have felt great bullying a kid because the mother would tell him what to bite because flowers.
We absorbed the story, and I told her the same thing I always say when someone (adult or child or myself) complains about being bullied: “The best revenge is to be unlike the person who did you harm.” That’s not my wisdom, of course, it belongs to the Roman philosopher and general Marcus Aurelius. But I say it so often that I practically own it. Other people are jerks, but the best way to get back at them is to be known for being good – to be known for being above them, morally and personality-wise. Like the HOA guy is known for being a bureaucratic jerk, and I am known for constructing gardens that make people smile. Is the revenge that that gets under his skin, or that my gardens make me happy despite him?
But it did little to assuage her concerns. She was not so much concerned about that particular household as confused as to why any adults would want to be superfluously mean to a child.
Oddly, that whole conversation seemed to fit a theme in my world. On a daily basis, it seems, I hear from several friends who are legitimately concerned about the culture wars and the fate of American society. The toxicity of ordinary discourse. The increasingly bizarre moral purity tests inflicted on both adults and children in public institutions. Most of them are watching the Democratic presidential primary unfold and simply remarking about the things they hear. They worry about politicians who are in love with the practice of abortion, who even support abortion to the moment a child is born. They worry about socialism. They worry about the greed and corruption of “establishment” parasites. They see the world crumbling around them, a country that has turned its back on God and good values. They wish they could take their child to see a movie that does not depict Judeo-Christian virtues with contempt. And I get it. I feel these things too.
It’s funny, but I hear that voice in our daughter too. Why would her neighbor, someone who lives one door down, want to be cruel to her? Her parents tell her about being a good person and a good citizen – are these truths absent to other people? She had just fallen down, and they didn’t even ask her if she was all right. Instead they started chewing her out about grass, as if the grass were some advanced life form that had been irreparably injured. Her own mother is obsessed with plants, but not that obsessed with plants. What the heck is wrong with them that they behave this way?
It’s a good question too – why does someone want to spend their golden years on this planet making their neighbors miserable? Who moves to a beach town in Florida just to join the HOA? Alas.
There are a lot of people who live completely and utterly in the absence of persuasive concepts, or what a philosopher might call “values.” You aren’t going to troll them out of that situation. You aren’t going to emote them out of that position either, by telling them fairy tales or sentimental stories. You aren’t going to shame or bully them into believing something they don’t already believe.
Your only hope of bringing a resolution is to be a relentlessly, unapologetically good person. To make them look at your goodness and flourishing and think, “I don’t want to be like this anymore. That’s a better way to live.”
A friend of mine likes to say “God wastes nothing” when bad things happen. The implication there is that, even in the darkest periods, there is some good to come out of things. That may even be divine intent. It’s a difficult thing to believe when bad things are happening to you, but it’s true. People are more receptive to change when they hit rock bottom in bad habits. The person who is talking gleefully about aborting babies at 39 weeks may be 24 hours away from having the Holy Spirit come down upon them like a category 5 hurricane. You never know. It’s out of your hands anyway.
But wasting nothing is an example that we should emulate in our own lives too. It is really the only way to deal with negative events.
My husband and I have a ritual of practicing a random act of kindness whenever we have a bad day. We’ll go out to eat and leave the server a $50 tip, for example. We were doing this even when we were young and it hurt us financially. The other day, I was hacking away at weeds in the garden trying to get some anxiety out of my system and another neighbor came to talk to me. She’s always talking about how she admires my gardens, so I handed her a few bags of iris bulbs and taught her where and how to plant them in her own yard. Now, she can’t see me without talking about how she loves going outside and seeing her iris beds that are now in full bloom. Being nice when the world treats you like crap really does make a difference, and not only in media res.
But beyond that, it brings credibility. No one cares what a jerk has to say about anything, and it is remarkably easy to be a jerk (especially when you think you are the hero of your own story on social media). You can spew all the cable news talking points on someone you want… If they don’t agree with you, the best you have going for you is that they might still continue talking to you after you shut up. But if you tell someone you think something is wrong and the only thing they know about you is that you are a good person in word and deed, you are suddenly a force for change in someone’s heart of hearts. They will want to know why you believe what you believe.
Christians talk a lot about the power of testimony, but it’s a frequently misunderstood concept. Testimony is not simply about storytelling. It’s about experience – and more importantly, shared experience (in a human and transcendent sense). It’s about truths that can be known because they are common. There’s a reason testimony is persuasive when self-righteous bloviating and attacks are not.
Make a beautiful contribution and make it so often that it’s ordinary.