“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This quote, attributed to author and theologian Ian Maclaren, has been tossed around a lot. I think I first saw it memed on Facebook and most recently I heard it on Krista Tippet’s On Being. It is simple and straightforward and frankly, kind enough, to come off as a bit trite. I am reticent to be found quoting phrases I’ve seen more than once pasted over the image of a sunset, or a silhouetted figure with their head in their hands. But this one, I’m going to stand behind. This one is not to be dismissed. It is, in fact, particularly handy when one is scrolling through their Facebook feed—so full of both the beautiful and ugly, in image and word—and precariously near falling victim to impulse replying. With hand hovering over the keyboard, prefrontal cortex poised, quickly conjuring up a tart reply to something that’s pressed the “angry”, “offended” or “I’ve been staring at a screen too long and just cannot” button inside, “be kind…” is a blessed mantra to retrieve and reflect with.
This is an important phrase indeed, not only when tooling around social media—that ripe field for impulsive seed to be scattered and bear sour fruit—but really when confronted with any of the issues and characters that compose our political and social climate at present. One issue I’ve been skirting around for fear of being immediately exhausted and annoyed (and saddened and discouraged and bewildered) by is the hotly-debated issue of bathroom access in public spaces. I use “debated” very generously as, especially if Facebook is your primary news source (I confess, it is mine of late), the content of what you are seeing or reading seldom has enough substance or anything like a fact traceable to a source considered actual information (let alone insight).
This is why I was so pleasantly surprised and grateful to stumble upon a Baptist minister who, when confronted with this issue, was self-aware and open enough to recognize that he had very little actual information about what it meant to be a transgender person (let alone how such persons might be effected by laws about bathroom use). Rather than leap to a reactive response based on what he might assume should be his moral stance as a conservative pastor, he paused and started to ask questions. “I don’t know much about transgender issues,” he admitted, “but I’m trying to learn.” It is in the trying to learn that this man reveals Christ to us more than any memes throwing out Scripture reference or rants about how our society is descending into chaos. And it is with Christ-like invitation that he challenges his readers with the question “How much do you really know about this subject beyond all the screaming headlines” while gently reminding us, that more than political posturing and religious rigidity, this is about “real people and real families.” Have we calmly considered who those people might be? Have we done our homework about what risks are real and what are inflated in order to manipulate an emotional reaction?
Asking questions with the intention of hearing and learning and desiring to understand is a radical, rare, brave and vulnerable act. In a prayer often (albeit incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis, the writer beseeches God that they might direct their energy toward seeking to “understand, rather than to be understood.” In doing so we are opened to the possibility of love; our being is expanded to receive others (even others who are different or confusing or who we genuinely disagree with). It’s a prayer, ultimately, to be more like Jesus, who walked among strangers, sinners and enemies and so often found in them disciples, followers and friends.
What this rant is about, more than anything, is both how we respond to difference and how we behave when confronted with information startling, offensive or frightening to us. If I intend to take in and respond to information as my best self and as a member of the body of Christ, then I find I need to pause, not only before I repost or reply but also to evaluate what is being fed me. Is there any nutrition here or is it just tantalizing candy, packaged to trigger my cravings, fears, anxieties, longings? Is it just empty calories that will leave me full but malnourished or worse; toxins that once consumed will poison my point of view and diminish my capacity to live and love well? I need to ask myself (and I invite you to do the same) “is this designed to heal or to hurt?”
“Does this seek to unify or divide?”
“Is this truthful?”
“Is this merciful?”
Imagine Jesus or, if you prefer, imagine the kindest person you know sitting next to you. Wait to see if they smile, nod, and reach over to press “send.”