Choose Your Own Narrative

I engaged in a Facebook fight recently. This hasn’t happened in a while. I try […]

Stephanie Phillips / 10.14.14

I engaged in a Facebook fight recently. This hasn’t happened in a while. I try to avoid commenting on the status updates and posts that particularly (and regularly) annoy me–not so much out of a sense of honor as an awareness that my blood pressure can’t take it. But when I read a comment posted underneath a friend’s status update–a comment that appeared to defend prosperity preachers and minimize the evil of ISIS in one fell swoop–I couldn’t help myself. I loaded up my verbal ammunition and fired.

duty_callsFor the next several hours, I went back and forth with my virtual foe, checking my phone way too often and nursing my rage with an inner monologue defending my position. I rehearsed commentary during my son’s bath and racked my brain while my husband and I watched old 30 Rock episodes. I was not, as Oprah would say, present. It wasn’t a good look on me. Finally, I surrendered to not being the one with the last word–or, as Kreider would say, I gave up trying to wrest control of the narrative (a pretty charitable move for a redhead with a temper, I thought smugly), and over the next couple of days I finally (somewhat) let it go and went back to inhabiting the real world.

The real world. You know, where the Ray Rice video occurred? And a guy with Ebola allegedly lied his way into our country? And there’s also the small matter of the upcoming election and its accompanying attack ads.

It quickly occurred to me that this all wasn’t going to go away–this opportunity for outrage, supplied by people, their opinions and imperfections, and bolstered by the internet, the constant presence of all shades of “bad” in the world, the back-and-forth commentary and attacks and vitriol spewed all over screens and newscasts, filling our brains and living rooms with omnipresent onslaughts of injustice–like other people’s bad politics.

There are people I’ve blocked on Facebook because their posts have become so predictable it’s like listening to a broken record in visual form. (I know that around the 2008 election, that’s how people felt about my constant political posts and unyielding point of view.) Then there are people with whom I disagree but whose well-reasoned posts educate me–force me out of a singular way of thinking, a convenient vantage point based on who raised me and where and what I’ve experienced since then. I’d like to think that my perspective informs theirs as well, that we mutually gain from each other’s opinions.

That’s the best-case scenario, and its likelihood is dependent on how we choose to give voice to the opinions born of our narratives. Because that’s what we do–we echo the chants of the narrative structures we inhabit, constructs of our own experience mixed with what we’ve been taught (and whether we’ve embraced or rebelled against that instruction). We readily give the benefit of the doubt to the people on our side of the aisle, be it a political or personal or religious aisle, as we denigrate without tolerance the guy on the other side. Two presidents can take the same action, four years apart, and have different groups calling for their heads, their own allies remaining conspicuously silent. Not much has changed since our days on the playground: we pick teams and we fight for them, with righteous indignation more accessible than humility. Jonathan Haidt, who has written extensively (and been quoted here often) about how our narratives support our morality positions, refers to the “tribal moral communities” to which we all belong–at the root of which is a sacredness we feel to be inviolable.

Which is all well and good: as human beings, we care. We make value judgments. We need both sides of the aisle to have fruitful debate, to allow iron to sharpen iron, to bring about compromise. But how often do those debates and sharpening sessions and compromises occur within social media, or political ads, and their attendant fury?

The jump fergusonfrom opinion to outrage in our culture is swift, loud, and not always dependent on a full analysis of facts. It’s also heady, the idea that each of us has a voice that will garner “likes” or arguments–some kind of response that proves we have been heard. That kind of validation stokes the fires of our preformed opinions into a sort of self-righteousness that, too often, leaves no room for nuance or exception: people are either the Bad Guys or The Good, and once our minds are made up (typically well before the actual jury convenes), they might as well be sealed vaults. This is the less-than-best-case-scenario: we cling to the ideology that has been bred into us by teaching and experience as though it were a feather in our caps or a badge on our chests.

Does anyone else hear the needy pangs of identity-seeking underneath all that noise?

I used to be all too willing to lead the virtual pack of villagers wielding their opinions like pitchforks (still am sometimes). Then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: I got married and became a parent. And there’s something about having perpetual witnesses around to view my own behavior that forces a silencing humility into my former purely fiery disposition. Oh, that fire still rears its ugly head–just take a look at the dent in our trashcan. But with a couple of extra pairs of eyes around all the time, my own imperfections are harder to hide, and the idea of going online to crucify someone else’s character becomes laughable at best.

Because here’s the bottom line: I am the people I vilify.

Not because I’d do what they’ve done in every case, but because I’d do what I’ve done. And no matter how well-honed my sense of morality is, no matter the well where I’ve watered my own brand of justice or the narrative from which I’ve developed my own script, there will eventually be some loophole I’ll have to find if I want my own case acquitted. At some point, we each have to stand alongside the thief, the harlot, the abuser. And on that day, that day when we’ve done the thing we never thought we would do, we need more than a loophole; we need an entirely new narrative. Something more than what guides our hand in the voting booth; something greater than a self-constructed morality. We need the narrative of grace, and an essential part of that narrative is redemption: others’, and our own.

It is that narrative alone that can both motivate our sense of justice while quieting the self-justification that pollutes it. And it’s this narrative we can’t wrest control of because, as has been noted, “It is finished.” We owe more allegiance to the narrative of grace than to our politics or our experience. We owe more to it, period. And when our personal narratives are not just informed by, but formed by, grace, I suspect we will be quicker to feel compassion than outrage. We may even come to believe that the redemption-centric narrative of grace makes us all–aisles and all–look more alike than different.

The Ratonalist Delusion & the Perils of Certainty ~ Jonathan Haidt from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

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