My previous post, “Fear of Generosity,” comes dangerously close, I fear, to self-help. It was not widely popular in terms of traffic or noise making, but it seemed to resonate with people. Perhaps there are things that, cheesy or not, sometimes need to be said plainly and in terms that verge on the prescriptive. So be it. If you agree, please continue to tell me and I’ll respond by trying to write more of it.
In this post, I’d like to outline a danger I’ve observed in public discourse, especially on social media. In fact, it would not be off the mark to see these sorts of posts as a reaction to the kind of interaction, or lack thereof, observed on Facebook and Twitter, indicative of the sort of cultural illness we suffer from collectively.
If you spend as much time online as I do — and maybe that is the real problem — I think you will find a poignant and salient woundedness there. I admire the “mommy blog” genre, especially by my colleagues here, here, and here at Patheos, because I think they show an awareness of these wounds and the pressing need for catharsis and other therapeutic forms of outreach. These women seem to write, on repeat, a refrain that sings, in hilarious and often melancholy desperation, “you are not alone, I am not alone, we are not alone.”
I don’t want to caricature these wonderful bloggers as sentimentalists. To the contrary, the sentiment and emotion on display there also reveals the intellectual and literary value of their work — it also strikes me as being remarkably catholic.
The point is that mothers are not the only ones who feel alone and afraid and particularly anxious these days. It is a remarkable fact that, if you listen to any ideological echo-chamber on any issue, from marriage to guns to abortion to taxes to school curricula, each respective side is convinced that they are losing badly.
How odd it is that among the truest believers there is such widespread despair! Conservatives are sure that the liberal media and Democratic agenda is taking everything over and that they will soon be forced to fight or flee. Liberals are equally sure that conservative talk radio and Fox News and the Republican party are devastating the environment and the poor and leaving everything permanently broken.
Each side is not so secretly infatuated with the other side. This is a tragic ideological romance. A foreplay that seems destined for a nuclear, explosive consummation.
There is nuance, too, but it is hardly interesting or original. Some of us like to be routinely outraged at partisan outrage, so we join the dance, we copy it through denial, and the exception becomes the norm.
There is also good news: social media is doing some good things, like the best qualities of mommy blogs.
On my Facebook account, different worlds often collide. I am still a bit hesitant to let in friends from the academy, but the ones I do have there are forced to come into contact with friends from church and family and musicians and friends of friends and old high school aquantainces.
This very well could be a perfect recipe for a delicious disaster. But it’s not. Sure, there is restraint and disinterest on all sides, and sometimes things get heated, but by and large I’ve found that we’re able to more than get along: we are able to get to know each other as persons.
This leads me to submit a cliche that needs to be repeated: there is a real danger in the ghetto, the insiders table, the group that has become comfortable with its words and lingo and jargon, the small worlds that have recast everything else in their own image. We all know this, at some level, but I don’t think we realize it enough.
Long before the liberalism of Early Modernity, the Early Church was catholic in a radically Christian way: it was non-sectarian, or at least a non-sectarian sect. It also fostered deep and sometimes lasting disagreements. But it was a “public” in the vaguely democratic spirit of Athens that girds our modern political loins, and it shows all the stretch marks of a public experiment, the suffering of compromise and consensus.
Because let’s be honest: there is no widespread agreement without a great deal of work and, ultimately, tragedy.
As Pope Francis showed early signs of increased unity and reconciliation in his recent visit to the Holy Land, my mind wanders to the Early Church as the sort of social and cultural experience that is expensive and rare, and littered across that physical territory of the Middle East.
The wounds between us also show that division is sometimes a natural result of real and frank talk. The line dividing disfunction from sincerity is, perhaps, a fiction. But, I pray, it is also the work of healing that opens up a new space for grace to intervene, again and again.
So, no, this is not self-help and there is not a surefire way to do anything right.
It is a warning against private consensus†, against the sorts of interactions that are built on fickle and self-contained “common sense,” the fortresses we build to protect ourselves from the love we desire.
We should avoid confusing the tragedy of consensus with the comedy that is the collection of memes, bumper-stickers, and clever bullshit that has replaced sharing our lives, careful argument, and listening.
We should search for public spaces (perhaps ones like this one?) where we can test and check and imagine what a real consensus might look like, and whether that sort of thing is what we really want after all.
I do not think that this is necessarily political, yet another democratic experiment or reinvention. I am most inclined to see this as a radically religious experiment, and one that gets us to that place where mommy blogs venture more than most, in the wildly tame and predictable space of the pornographic internet: a place of weakness and vulnerability.
Francis refused extra security precautions and bullet-proof protection when he visited the Holy Land. This refusal is, I think, the key. The peril of private consensus is most deftly avoided when we are willing to be present in a way that risks something grave and serious. In a way that even risks love.
In other words, in order to avoid what is dangerous we must be willing to put ourselves in real danger.
† I owe the expression ‘private consensus’ to my colleague and friend, Justin Tse, who has written extensively on this topic under the mantra, “the private consensus is unraveling.” This post is the most representative sample.