My Complex Friend

I was talking with a friend recently. I’ve known him for a short time, just a few months, so I really don’t know much about him. I know that he is a father and that he has gone through a divorce, but I never asked about any details until the other night. When I did, he opened up and told me some of his story which was less than pleasant, as divorce is rarely pleasant. Then I found out that within a few years of the split, both of his parents had passed away.

Man. That hit me hard. He’s always a really positive guy with tons of energy. He always seems happy, energetic, and is someone who brings life and optimism to the room. Based on my experience with him, I never would have expected that he would be at the tail end of a self-proclaimed “rut,” and what seemed like it could be a deep one.

The conversation reminded me of the staggering complexity of humans. Before this part of my friend’s story was revealed to me, I only knew but a tiny snapshot of his life. I had no clue about the pain and heartbreak that had been baked into his experience, transforming him into who he is now. Even with this new information, I still only possess a very low-resolution snapshot of a tiny slice of his life.

So it made me think for a while. Who am I to make judgments about my friend? More, who am I to make judgements about anyone? How can I possibly understand the inner workings of someone else’s life and decisions when understanding my own soul is the task of a thousand lifetimes?

I can’t. That’s the thing. So I did the only thing I can do, and that was to listen. So I listened. And I understood a little bit more. As he told me part of his story, I saw the complexity of it all unfold right in front of my eyes, and I became humbled in the knowledge that he is a whole universe unto himself, as am I.

Later that night I found myself scrolling through social media. Now, I’ve spent a good amount of time (or should I say a bad amount of time…) on social media over the past 4 months. That night, I was struck by the contrast between what I saw on my feed and what I had just experienced with my friend.

I saw shallow, predictable arguments fighting over small details embedded in a much bigger situation. I saw the same memes and articles shared over and over along with nasty jabs or sarcastic, righteous remarks. I saw opposing narratives being thrown around with the same I saw charts and data that supported one argument. I saw charts and data that supported opposing arguments. I saw minimal context but lots of headlines. I saw people making harsh, impersonal judgements on people they don’t know, not directly, but through an article written by a different person they also don’t know.

What I saw troubled me. I found myself frustrated because most of what I saw didn’t sit right with me when I stacked it up against my own moral compass. Not because they were all wrong and I was right, but because there was no acknowledgement to that complexity within each of us. Every story, each person, each event in reality is saturated with nuance and complexity, but what I saw online was a dismal, low-resolution two-dimensional cartoon that bore almost no resemblance to the reality it was representing.

All of us understand but a minute slice of the whole picture, viewed from a specific angle. How can we possibly make sound judgements with such little understanding of the whole picture?

With each headline shared out of context, and with each public judgement stamped into our personal history, we turn ourselves into the ground soldiers fighting the war of the rich and powerful that we say we despise. In this click-bait age of tension and frustration, we fail to bring our heads out of the sand and turn our eyes towards the whole. When our emotions alone guide our beliefs and interactions, we fail to remove ourselves from the battleground of shallow narratives.

I think some perspective and humility is in order. Let’s all practice some trigger discipline in the name of empathy, and let’s all search for context and understanding in the sea of blind anger and righteousness.

How did we get here? Where is the humanity in all this?

A Country Divided

Earlier this year I asked my parents if they had seen, in their lifetimes, America as divided as it is today. To me, it feels painfully divided, but I haven’t been watching for that long. My parents confirmed my suspicions and said it seems more divided than it has been in their lifetimes. Beyond that anecdote, here’s a graphic that shows this increasing division over time. 

So I’ve been wondering over the past few weeks, why is America so divided? Why is it so unbelievably hard to actually connect with people and make bridges across party lines? Why am I constantly frustrated with what I see on social media, not because it disagrees with my narrative, but because it seems so binary, shallow, and disconnected from the reality of the human experience?

People much smarter than I have tackled this question, but I will write some of my own thoughts on the matter.

First, the internet happened. We now have mass communication at an unprecedented rate. More content is being created than ever before, and we are all spending more time consuming that content, faster than ever before. Media outlets are incentivized to get clicks and views. It’s better for their advertisers, which means they make more money, and I’m sure the popularity is addicting, too.

This isn’t a media problem. This is a human problem. We all do the same thing. It’s easy to blame the media for creating clickbait, but we are the ones who share that clickbait for the same reason. How many times do we share headlines laden with harsh judgements without first making an effort to understand the full context around it, or at least reading the whole article?

Now that we are ~20 years into playing with this insane mass-communication phenomenon, some of the effects are starting to be visible. I believe one of them is this increased division. It is unbelievably easy to filter for information that fits a simple narrative. It is much more rewarding in the short term to buy into these narratives and slip into a sort of tribal warfare. 

It’s much harder to act that way in real life. The incentives are different. Can you imagine people saying what they say to each other on the internet, face-to-face? That would make a funny, albeit sad, parody video. 

Second, I don’t think this is just an internet problem. The proclamation of values that birthed western civilization are now 2000 years old. That’s a long time. Reality is changing at an increasing rate, and we are questioning those values that used to blindly guide us. The scientific revolution of the past millennium, among other things, has nudged our course in an unexpected direction, and now we are grappling once again with those old values. We face the decision to update those values, or at least update our relationship with them.

This claim I understand less, but I think I am touching part of the Truth here.

After all of this, I go back to that conversation with my friend. Outside the short-tempered battlefield of the internet, my experience is that humanity is actually alive and well. In real life, people listen to each other and treat each other with kindness much more than what is represented online. The beauty and complexity of life can always be found just behind an earnestly asked question.

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