As a mother and a faith writer, I exist in arguably two of the most contentious spaces online. The degree of heat generated from hot-button topics is directly proportional to how much they matter to our lives, and we are most divisive on issues closest to our hearts — like parenting and faith.
It can quickly become discouraging, as patterns of vitriol in conversations become normalized in our public engagement of ideas. A scandal erupts — like the recent revelation of reality show star Josh Duggar's past sexual misconduct, or a celebrity transitions publicly from Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner — and we brace for the impact of the inevitable tidal wave of opinions to advance with force. Everything ranging from sensational clickbait to articulate think pieces inundate our media feed, propelling our passions quickly into polarizing positions. We find ourselves frustrated and frayed at the fringes of our sensibilities.
A multiplicity of ideas is not the problem. Although hateful comment sections are disheartening, social media have given us the gift of making visible a variety of human opinions. We should be suspicious when there is unilateral consensus — an apt description of propaganda. It may seem like progress sludges forward because of the time-consuming work of hashing out differences, but progress can never happen when voices that challenge the reigning status quo are silenced.
However, in this new age of constant sound bytes, we must learn to ride the waves of strong, opposing contributions to public discourse in ways that lifts us up and carries us forward — instead of being pulled under, pinned to the floor by rip currents of controversy.
This year, the formula company Similac put out an ad that went viral. The commercial encapsulates an idea that I think is helpful in the arena of faith. Similar to religious communities, the world of parenting is hyper-polarized by various contentious issues, from the stay-at-home vs. working mom debate to vaccinating to educational options. This ongoing phenomena of contentious child-rearing was long-ago coined the “mommy wars.”
The ad begins by presenting caricatures of various (updated) players in the “mommy wars,” including breastfeeding moms, cloth diapering moms, stay-at-home dads, yoga moms, and working moms decked out in business attire. Set in a park, the different factions argue contentiously to background music with a beat reminiscent of battle drums. As the fights build to a climax, one of the strollers loses its brake control and begins descending down a hill. At this point, the music takes a dramatic change in tone as the previously warring parents come together to race after the stroller in an effort to save the little baby from harm.
What transcended their fiercest convictions is an urgent need to care for the vulnerable.
As a cross-cultural person, I am keenly aware of the vastly different ways we do life. I am a huge champion of creating space for diversity. However, leaning into our differences also serves to make universal aspects of humanity unmistakable. And one thing that binds us is our common experience of suffering. Our compassion and empathy for the suffering of others is powerful enough to break down the thickest walls of ideology.
I think about the areas of our most vehement disputes: the beginning of life (abortion), the end of life (capital punishment, end-of-life care), marriage and children (gay marriage, parenting wars), dignity of work and supporting the family (the economy) — and I see these issues radiate out of the struggle to be human. The pains that love brings to the human experiment threaten with small wedges of disagreement between us until we are fragmented mini-tribes with narrow dogmas.
What if — instead of letting suffering divide us — we transform it into a centrifugal force? So that when we face an opponent of contentious disagreement, we see beyond the hate and reach for the fears, grief, anger, and disappointment that are undergirding their passion? We may not understand their divergent worldview, but we know pain. We engage with our most passionate convictions not out of a desire to destroy, but to relieve suffering.
When we recognize that the same anxiety motivating us is present in the other, we will be empowered to mutually reach into a reservoir of hope. Jurgen Moltmann writes:
“What anxiety and hope actually have in common is a sense of what is possible. In anxiety we anticipate possible danger. In hope we anticipate possible deliverance.”
The noisiness of our impassioned debates is both a symptom and a cure of our human problem. Our world is groaning in labor pains, pregnant with possibilities of both danger and deliverance. I’m not sure we can or need to sort out one or the other. Without fear we cannot breed hope. Without anxiety we won’t long for truth. Without death, there can be no life.
When our views threaten to disintegrate into upsetting disputes that force us into a gridlock, securely stuck with no way out, let compassion for suffering work its magic. It will work. Love will prevail. Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes:
“Dialogue cannot exist in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. If I do not love the world — if I do not love life — if I do not love people — I cannot enter into dialogue.”
He further elaborates that love is not sentimental, but a brave commitment to others: to their cause, their liberation, their freedom. It is for love that we march with convictions into protest and that we engage passionately in matters closest to our hearts. We are driven by love to expose the anxieties within us: our struggle for life with dignity, for justice and equal treatment, to know and be known. Love strips us of the fear of complexity and takes us wading into deep tensions. But that same love drives us to imagine better possibilities. This shared anxiety for the human struggle reveals itself in the most vitriolic of battles, online and off. May it also bind us in a common pursuit of future hope, that there might be some sense of unity in diversity. Our dreams may look different from one another, but the miracle remains in the subversive act of dreaming. And that is hope enough.