So I've been working on this post off and on for a couple weeks, and today I find that my friend Nick Cash has summed up what I wanted to say in a few simple sentences.
"We are all looking for some breakthrough answer, some secret success strategy. But it all comes down to time alone with God and time spent building deep community with each other. There are no secrets, no tricks, no shortcuts. Life is relationships, and relationships take time, effort, investment, sacrifice."
Yep. Feel free to turn off your computer and spend some time investing in your most valuable relationships!
But if you want to hear a much more rambling explanation of why Pastor Nick is right, then read on.
I have a cousin who swears up and down that there is a difference between the quality of sound you get from a cd and what you hear when a record is playing. The reason for the difference, he says, is that all digitally stored information must at some point be recorded in binary combinations. So every subtle variation of tone or timbre must ultimately be reduced to a bunch of infinitesimally small yes or no questions. Inevitably, there is a variation that falls somewhere between the zero and the one, which must be swept one way or the other. The resulting music is cleaner perhaps, but not as real. It has been edited--admittedly at a level beyond what most ears can detect--but edited all the same. A vinyl record, on the other hand, is a direct impression of the sounds that occurred at the time of its recording, where the creak of a chair is treated to the same level of accuracy as Yoyo Ma's interpretation of Bach.
We face a similar choice in the way we deal with the world around us--to run life through a strainer of yes or no questions so that everything can be properly classified, or to record life as it happens and run the risk of loving the squeaky chair as much as the cello. The advantage of the digital approach (as any IT wizard will tell you) lies in the immense amount of data that can be processed, not just stored but sorted, counted, analyzed, and interpreted. But of course, in doing so, we run the risk of forgetting that the data is not reality, but a binary interpretation of reality.
We who live in a digital environment like to think of the world around us as a series of interacting systems. It scratches our itch for that all-encompassing "theory of everything." If we could just process a little more information, we would be able to see the whole enchilada...and make significant improvements! We end up weighing the relative merits of --isms like "Feminism" or "Patriotism" or "Activism," as if the "ism" creates the reality, instead of the other way around. Which is probably why our attempts to alter "the system" so rarely work out the way we think they will.
Human beings are not digital. We are gorgeous, unpredictable, analog beasts, every one. The subtleties that breathe life into our experiences are the same frustrating aberrations that mess up our beautiful systemic solutions. In other words, the closer we get to each other, the less comfortable we are with the predetermined slots we've developed for organizing the masses. People do not fall neatly into categories of "acceptable friends" and "ignorant fools."
So what if we tried living more analog and less digital? What if we took some of the emotional energy we've been spraying onto the faceless throng whose trolling comments and confrontational bumperstickers declare war on everything we love, and instead we invested that energy into building good relationships?
But wait, you say. What about those dastardly powerful people who use their influence to pull all the political strings? What about all the hatred and anger being shouted at us from the Evil Club? Who's going to shout them down if not for us?
Well, maybe no one will. Maybe they'll shout themselves hoarse while the rest of us get on with the messy business of loving each other.
Politically speaking, my grandmother lived a pretty unremarkable life. She will not be remembered as one who "changed the system." But she loved fearlessly. She invested herself in the lives of whoever was fortunate enough to cross her path, from the bitter old lady in the nursing home to the neglected five year old living down the street. Every interaction was a chance to build someone up. And even though she's been gone for ten years, the love she invested in people is still alive and active today. It lives on in the generosity of her husband and her children and grandchildren who regularly open their homes and their hearts to the lonely, the awkward, and the overlooked (all her favorites).
No amount of political maneuvering is going to have a greater influence on the way I interact with strangers than the love I learned from my grandmother (which was echoed by my parents). Compared to what my grandmother taught me, the attitudes modeled by any of the presidents I've been served by (from the Bushes to Clinton to Obama to Trump) have about as much influence as "a fart in a hurricane," as Grandpa likes to say.
And I'm not the only one.
What if the world is becoming more cruel not because of some shady political conspiracy but because at some point we all began to love "the system" more than the humans who share it with us? What if, instead of reducing everyone to a demographic category, we assumed that the majority of us have had wonderful grandmothers who taught us to love the stranger and be generous to those we disagree with? We might get hurt, but I think I'd rather get hurt believing in people than take on the responsibility of judging them. I would rather treat everyone with kindness because that's the kind of person I'm trying to be, than carry the impossible burden of determining how every other person in the world deserves to be treated because of what they may or may not believe in.
If our children are harsh and ungenerous, it more likely comes from seeing us act that way with each other than from the insidious influence of politicians they've only known about since last year or so.
And if our children are fearful, isn't it likely that they're learning that from us, too?
Please don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to say that we should stop taking political sides and speaking up for what we believe. I do have definite opinions about the right way and the wrong way to run a country, and they are probably not the same as yours (at least not all of them).
But I'm not going to talk to you about our political differences until I've invested in our relationship enough to bear the weight of our disagreement, and then probably only if it comes up naturally in conversation.
I think I'd rather influence you through who I am and how I love you (as imperfect and awkward as that may be) than how I think you should behave. It's a longer process, and sometimes you can't even see anything happening. But you know, all the really good things in life are like that. I'd rather our relationship grew slowly, sturdily, like a tree, than quickly like grass.
Trees last longer.