Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Ugly Times Make Us Ugly People?

These are some hard days for Americans. If you live in the USA, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't live here, you probably still know. Our politics has descended to a level of ugly that is dark and strange even for our usual presidential elections. Ugly.

Ugly is never good. It corrupts the end and the means of any human endeavor.

People have passionate convictions about what they think must be done in the present circumstances. That's fine. Passionate convictions make for a good dialogue, a useful dialogue where we may be able to discover the deeper reasons for our positions, where we actually agree and where we disagree, and why.

Dialogue is based on mutual esteem for one another. This esteem is not merely a sentimental "being nice" -- it can be expressed in many forms. It can be feisty, provocative, edgy, and frank, as well as diplomatic, courteous, careful, irenic, and many other things. It has room for a fair measure of humor and even a dash of sarcasm, especially when everyone in the discussion has a taste for spice. Dialogue should be as reasonable as we can muster, without arrogance, seeking understanding, and patient with all our slow plodding ways of knowing. It should always be vigorous, honest, magnanimous of mind and heart, and humble. And it should give everyone space to be human--which (generally) entails being somewhat intelligent and somewhat ignorant, diverse in temperament, possessed of dignity and worthy of respect, sometimes articulate, often awkward, capable of learning but inclined to misunderstanding, occasionally brilliant, always peculiar.

Fruitful dialogue encompasses all these things. But it should never be ugly.

None of us is perfect at this business, and we will be messy about it in different directions, depending on our temperament, emotional state, fears, weaknesses, neurobiological quirks, and so on. Indeed, we can get very messy about it.

Some among us lose our perspective, or try to berate points beyond what the circumstances of a discussion (or the limits of a particular communications media platform) can bear. Others are largely silent. Perhaps a few of these latter people find silence to be the better part of wisdom. Many are silent because they are afraid to speak, or because they don't know what to say, or because they are confused. Maybe they simply don't want to talk about it, and they don't want to tell us why they don't want to talk about it. Dialogue cannot be forced. People's freedom must be respected.

Some are just too sick. They don't have the physical, mental, and/or emotional resources to invest in an intense conversation about what to do in the presidential election. They have to focus the few resources they have on the most fundamental tasks of life and relationships. Be kind to them. They especially need it now.

Presidents of the past in stony consternation
Here in America we have an ugly election, and different features of the ugliness stand out in different ways. It looms over all of us, and we still have to live our days together, bump into one another, interact in the nitty-gritty of one another's lives. Trying to ignore the whole ugly thing is very hard and usually artificial. It comes up in conversation, in references. It weighs down our concerns. Things can get messy. None of us should think that we are superior or somehow exempt from the messiness of being human. We may find ourselves fighting with one another. It happens.

But, please, let's not be ugly to one another.

Realism forces us to face the ugliness associated with political organizations and the people who aspire to be the leaders of the United States of America. Ugliness! But what is to be done about the ugly monster that approaches us? It is a passionate question. And one thing that is very clear is that good people disagree about what is still possible, what can or should be done before, on, or after November 8th. Decent, trustworthy people have different convictions, or opinions, or hunches, or degrees of confusion or frustration about what is to be done. That will probably continue and extend to different points after election day.

We hope and pray that we are among the "good, decent, trustworthy people." Perhaps this is not something that we should simply take for granted. How much are we ourselves affected by the ugliness that we face? How much is the present Big Ugliness the reflection, the consequence, the fruit of our own little narrow nasty ugliness, accumulated and perhaps hidden and strangely cherished in our hearts? I know these are questions I must ask myself. It won't hurt any of us to undergo a serious and honest examination of conscience, without scrupulosity but with realism.

After all, our hope is not grounded in our own ability to keep ourselves from becoming ugly. Our hope is grounded and sustained by an Inexhaustible Mercy.

And in any case we will still get messy. There will continue to be arguments. But let's not be ugly to one another. Let's resist the great temptation that tries to convince us that the only way to destroy a monster is to become another monster. We all know this is wrong, but it still exercises a deep practical attraction on our human weakness, our inner dysfunctionality, our frustrations, fears, and propensity for violence.

It's worth noting a few considerations that might be helpful for us.

When we fight with one another verbally, let's refrain from personal insults, from jumping to nefarious conclusions about one another's motives, and from attacking one another's basic human dignity. Let's try to banish such things even from our thoughts insofar as we have the awareness and the capacity to do so. This is very important.

But this is also very important: we all know that some people are more inclined by temperament to be actively aggressive. Thank God for these people; they are the ones who get things done! But they are also tempted (in various ways) to be bossy, overbearing, or too quick to use words without thinking. The better we know these forceful, dynamic, aggressive people, the more aware we are of their qualities and weaknesses.

For such people, this ugly season is especially difficult to bear.

Let's not, therefore, fall into the sneaky trap of passive-aggressiveness. Now, especially, is not the time to bait these friends to an ill-considered expression of anger and frustration so that we can secretly relish what we fancy is our own phlegmatic superiority. No! This is all the more ugly for its proud disguise.

Spit out the ugly thing!

Yes, we're human. Let's talk at times and in places where conversation can be useful. Let's try to be generous toward one another in our style of expression. Let's listen to one another. Do we end up arguing? Fighting? Let's at least do it like brothers and sisters.

Because that is who we are.

We are brothers and sisters in a good family. It's tumultuous and dramatic and messy, because we are not a bunch of robots. We are human beings, children of God called to "grow up" together in this world, in this life we share. We grow by loving one another, and some of us are too loud, others too taciturn, or too smug, or too hesitant, or too self-assured, or too rosy, or too gloomy, or too... whatever!

And now we are in an ugly place, and we have to help one another get through it. But let's not forget our real home, or the reason why we are together.