Right Speech: Paving the Path to Peace and Understanding

I have wallowed in a puddle of disappointment these last several days.  The world I so much want to exist just doesn’t, and that has seriously bummed me out. I am not one to wander into deep existential despair, bemoaning the lack of a purpose to life.  (I believe we’re here to love one another and reduce suffering, but that’s another post).  Instead I tend to stand in the pit of disappointment in humanity.  Perhaps those aren’t too far apart. After all, my disappointment in humanity largely stems from our failure to truly love one another and our continuous acts that increase human suffering.

On my bleakest days, I wonder what I’m missing.  Just how stupid am I, thinking we should just all get along despite our differences of race, religion, politics, gender, education, and all? It’s tempting to wall myself off from all that irks me and give up that idea that we’ll ever become a more compassionate world.

This bout mental gloom began with a question.  A Facebook friend, whom I do know in real life, asked a question regarding a politically charged issue.  Now, I’ve been called naive before, although I prefer to think of it as hopeful.  I assumed (first error) that her question was genuine: a gentle probe to understand the other side of an issue she holds dear to her heart.  So I answered (second error), with a gentle, honest, brief answer.

For a few minutes after I replied, I thought I’d entered a real conversation.  Dialogue, I thought.  We’ve started a dialogue!  Not the kind that radically changes anyone’s mind.  Not the sort designed to move one from Camp A to Camp B.  Just the kind that increases understanding across the aisle, even if just by a hair.

Then the bottom dropped out.  Vitriol, assumptions, and judgement from others of her mindset began to fill the page.  Stunned and feeling rather ambushed, I sat, heart pounding and stomach rising. Her question was no genuine question, no reaching out to understand. It was rhetorical, aimed at those who espoused her opinion.  Rather than an invitation to dialogue, it was a request for affirmation from those of similar mindset.

I could have walked out then.  Perhaps I should have.  But still clinging to the idea that social media can offer us a unique opportunity to see and better understand the views of others, I hung in.  I briefly and politely replied a few times to the loudest responder, then feeling discouraged, wrote and posted a blog post on reversing the polarity of social media.  I didn’t advocate for a side (indeed, I’d not taken one).  I didn’t verbally spar. But I did give up, removing my replies (thus evoking  cheers), and chastised myself for my naiveté.

And then I despaired. If in this forum, we can’t make an attempt at civil and respectful speech, what hope to we have in the larger community?  Here, where we’ve selected to whom each missive goes, should we not be ready to be grown-ups, indeed models for the children of ours who are certainly watching, and agree to disagree as we teach them to do? Not to compromise their values, but rather to practice right speech (speak the truth with kindness and compassion).

In short, if we can’t practice tolerance and right speech among “friends”, where can we?  If we can only practice those traits with those who share our opinions, faith, and long-held beliefs, we are only walling ourselves off, missing opportunities to understand others and for others to understand us.  We’re missing our chance to practice our beliefs regarding love and respect. On a simply practical level, rancor and ridicule never moves someone to your point of view.  If anything, it moves them further away.  Back to that catching more flies with honey than vinegar adage…

So I get it.  Facebook and other social media are really places for us to justify ourselves and our stances.  After all, most of our “friends” think just like we do, right? And if they don’t, who cares?  We’re just being ourselves, true to our beliefs.  And that, of course, justifies any behavior or word these days.

But, I want better than that, online and in real life. I want a world where voicing a differing viewpoint isn’t an invitation to inhibition and insult.  I want to be able to disagree with respect, receiving respect in turn.  As humans, we owe that to each other, at least in my naive way of thinking.

This is far from the first time I’ve despaired about humanity, losing hope that we could ever truly learn to love each other with all our differing beliefs and opinions.  As I age, I ride the roller coaster of delight to despair more often, perhaps simply because I’m thinking more about it.  As my children grow, I strive to teach them to live lives of compassion, love, and respect.  I fall short with my own words many times, and then I despair in me. Perhaps the stakes just seem higher than ever, with increasing polarity in our nation and decreasing tolerance for what is not our own way of being.

So what to do?  Undoubtedly, start again, albeit a bit wiser.  Remember that above all, we’re all just painfully human, tightly identified with our minds and easily threatened by what we do not understand. Remember that it’s not defending an opinion or belief that is the problem, it is forgetting that those who don’t agree are as fully human as we are.  Thus, we open ourselves to greater understanding of others, which can only help form the path to peace.


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