I had to block someone on Facebook yesterday. It is the second or third time I have had to do that – maybe that’s a lot. I don’t know.
Here’s what happened. I posted something admittedly provocative, about something I feel very strongly about, gun violence in schools. What I posted offered no policy prescriptions, it was simply a photo that demonstrated the severity of the problem in a stark and moving way. Within 5 minutes someone who was in my friend circle (I think because of a tenuous music booking connection from a few years ago) but from whom I had never heard before (despite plenty of other provocative posts) decided that I was calling for a repeal of the second amendment and to throw a bunch of memes at me by way of arguing.
In retrospect, I feel a little sorry for him. He – let’s call him Phil for the sake of reducing ambiguous pronouns – clearly did not know what he was getting into. That was my face value response. The other part of my face value response was that this was a conversation that would not go anywhere. I was familiar with the predicted path of Phil’s argument and had no patience or sympathy for the viewpoint I assumed he had. I also suspected, based on some experience, that his interest in my point of view would be limited and would likely include some version of “libtard.” That was my face value assessment, plus a load of assumption and some knee-jerk reacting.
Being clear minded about all of that – self-aware about my judgments and my knee jerkiness on this subject in particular, I decided to try to engage. But I determined to try very hard not to beat him up. I determined not to paste the wall with graphs. I determined to ask questions. I proceeded to explain that if he was up for a policy discussion, I was in. If he wanted to meme toss, I was not interested. And so it began.
Phil staked out a few positions, avoiding actually saying “libtard,” but only just. And I felt the thrill of the self-righteous as I demanded respectful interchange and grilled Phil about policy positions. I pointed out the errors in his logic (with glee that I attempted, but likely failed, to hide). I brought him back to what I viewed as the central question as he attempted to shift the context of the discussion. I gave counter-factual for the facts he presented. I was pretty logically disciplined.
A very dear old friend jumped in and I felt bolstered by having an actual attorney arguing with me, until my wonderful attorney friend raised the point that I so wish I’d focused on all along. My friend got right to the heart of the matter and said he was sorry that Phil was so afraid – and he said it in a way that made it clear that he meant it sincerely – no sarcasm, no ill-will, just wow – I’m so sorry you are hurting.
And that is where my face-value assessment fell short. Because I had been right about ALL of my predictions and all of my assumptions. I had been right about exactly how this would go. What I failed to see was that my response to Phil was as much a part of that equation as his idiotic arguments (yep, still feel that way). What I failed to see in all of my super self-righteous generosity about engaging in this conversation even though it would go nowhere is that I did very little to try to chart a different course. I was careful not to insult him. That was my concession.
What I failed to do was choose love. What I failed to do was expand on a more loving perspective even when it was presented to me. When my dear old (he’ll really love that I’ve called him old twice now) friend demonstrated sympathy, rather than pausing and breathing and checking my course, I just let my circuits get a little fried, judged myself for not being that nice and proceeded with my policy discussion.
Just as Phil wasn’t interested in hearing my demands for government action, I wasn’t interested in understanding his heart. I wasn’t interested in leading with love. I wasn’t interested in asking the one question I now wish I’d asked instead of peppering him with specific policy questions (a shitty but easy thing for someone who’s had a lot grad school to do). I just wish I’d said: “Yeah Phil, you do sound really scared. Why are you so scared? What makes you scared?” Not in a you don’t have any right to be scared way, but in a I know it sucks to be scared and I am willing to listen to your fear kind of way. I am willing to love you in your scaredness (autocorrect really wanted that word to be sacredness, which I find both charming and ironic – the lesson continues) even though I disagree with you wildly on something that is connected to my deepest and truest fear. I alluded to my fears, but it was in all caps to convince rather than to share, to connect, to love. Phil continued arguing after both of his opponents had declared their intent to leave the field. “We’re not getting anywhere and it’s late.” He kept going and got more heated and a little more personal, both in his interpretation and his assertions. That’s the end for me, but looking back I can see how that happened. I’m not saying it’s all my fault, but I can imagine how it must have felt.
And now it feels like the opportunity to do better has passed, although that’s rarely ever completely true. I have admittedly blocked Phil and am unsure (to be perfectly honest) that I would like to change that as I was exhausted by this whole thing (and my ego still wants that to be about him). But I want to pause and realize that my problem from the get go wasn’t that I took him at face value and responded, but that I stayed right there. I didn’t allow my assessment and understanding to change even when it became clear that face value was not enough, not this time.
Face value is a great starting tool, especially when the other party is not revealing more; it can keep us from delving into other people’s personal thoughts and obsessing about our own choices, but face value has its limits. Love demands awareness when it’s time to make adjustments. Love demands not just listening but hearing. To quote a favorite songwriter: “Love reaches out,” not with facts and an agenda, but with curiosity and openness.
I can’t undo the exchange I had, and even now there are parts of it that I feel pretty good about; but today I will try again, with more open ears to reach my ever more open heart.