Month: October 2017

On Knowing and Being Known

I probably shouldn’t be saying this since parents from my church read my blog, but there was a time when I was fairly sure I didn’t like kids. At all. The first time I babysat for anyone was in college, I volunteered to clean toilets on mission trips rather than play with toddlers, and I never offered to hold someone’s baby. (They cry and can’t tell you why. Who wants to deal with that?)

The first time I joined a kids’ ministry in college was an accident (long story), but having signed up, I was determined to stick it out…and in the process, found I actually enjoyed it. Radical thought.

When I went to my sister to gather advice about interacting with the little terrors, her first and best bit of wisdom was: “Learn their names.”

And wouldn’t you know, she was right? Saying hello to kids by name—even telling them to stop talking/fidgeting/jamming a pencil in their friend’s ear by name—matters, and I think I know why. Even from our earliest years, we have a need to be loved and known for who we are.

That’s what I thought about when I heard about the song Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. When talking about his inspiration, he said, “The headline in The [New York] Times on Sunday was, ‘Many Towns In Puerto Rico Feeling Forgotten,’ and that broke my heart.”

So he called up a ridiculous number of bilingual musical artists and wrote a song to raise money and awareness for the devastation in Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying.” You should listen to it. Several times. I choose to exercise my Miranda rights not to tell you how many times I’ve put this on repeat yesterday.

(For those of you who aren’t musical theater buffs, the opening lines are sampled from “Maria,” a love song from West Side Story, a musical about Puerto Rican immigrants. So Miranda just got about 1,000 symbolism points.)

Besides that snippet, the lyrics are almost entirely formed by the names of all 78 towns in Puerto Rico. Yes, the song’s got a great beat, but what really gives me chills is hearing those names. No village too obscure. The capital San Juan just a few breaths away from the 6,000-person town of Maricao, a name no one outside of its borders had heard before. Until now.

The message of the song is clear: you are not forgotten.

 

I love that. Some of my favorite verses in the Bible are Exodus 2:24-25, talking about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt pre-Moses: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

And one of my favorite stories in the Bible is about Hagar, the battered and scorned servant who met the Lord in the desert and had the audacity to name him “The God who sees me.”

Seeing a pattern here?

The theme of being known by name is woven all throughout Scripture, from obscure genealogies and recitations of the history of Israel to the parables of Jesus and the greetings of Paul. Christianity has a lot to say about being seen.

And yet, being human, Christians are often not great at seeing others. And I’m including myself here.

My challenge to you this week isn’t just about memorizing names, although that might be part of it. It’s just to do your best to slow down long enough to look for the humanity in those around you.

Resist the urge to define others by who they are to you. That checkout clerk has a life outside of a frustrating return policy and a half-lidded “Did you find everything today?” Every coworker or small group member or neighbor holds onto a thousand silent hopes and fears. Even your spouse or mother or best friend is not first and foremost your spouse or mother or best friend.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with this realization, especially scrolling through Facebook. We have more ways than ever to amass positive feedback about our appearance, choices, opinions, witty remarks, and beautifully-arranged dinners. And yet I see so many lonely people, hoping to eke out enough affirmation to make them feel that they matter.

How well do I love them when we’re face-to-face? How often do I pray for them by name? How easily do I forget that they are just as complex and interesting and loved by God as I am?

Whoever you are, whatever background you come from, don’t forget to see people. Not as masses or political parties or age brackets, but as names and faces and individuals.

Facebook Grief: An Argument for Offline Emotions

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, my first instinct is to tell you what I think about the rise of lawlessness and gun control and processing grief and media coverage of tragedy.

I think my first instinct might be wrong.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to express prayers, sympathy, or an emotional reaction on Facebook to this event or any other, or that you shouldn’t ever talk about issues, even complex ones, online. (Guys, I have a blog. This is what I do here all the time.)

Basically, though, I think it can be harmful if we express our emotions only, or even mostly, in a format that wasn’t meant to carry that weight. Using the Internet to process grief isn’t always a good solution. Here’s why.

I’ve been thinking recently about how social media culture, mass communication, and the Internet in general has changed us, especially how we react to evil in the world. Unlike even a few decades ago:

  • You can’t get away from bad news. We’re followed around by issues and anxiety and tragedy, poked and prodded into one sort of commentary or another by friends, acquaintances, or total strangers.
  • We can know what everyone thinks about anything. No level of trust has to be established before we hear others’ opinions on what used to be personal subjects—it’s all out there. We’re surrounded by thoughts, typed impulsively next to tiny pictures of people we know that sometimes we feel that we don’t know them at all, that they couldn’t really mean it that way—and what was meant to bring us together pushes us apart. It makes people feel less personal. Easier to hurt. Easier to hate.
  • Our opinions can suddenly be heard and interacted with by a large audience of people. Some days, everyone responds/misunderstands/disagrees and it feels like we went from a nice chat to the Hunger Games cornucopia in five seconds flat. Other days, no one replies, and that makes us feel badly too—as if we don’t matter at all.

I’m not sure what sociologists’ official conclusions about all this would be, but for me, it’s a five-layer cake of existential weirdness. (That’s an official term, by the way.)

One conclusion I’m coming to is that I process too much, sometimes, in public spaces. Sometimes my own dirty laundry, but mostly the world’s, the church’s, my country’s, strung out neatly on a line for everyone to see and react to.

It’s not all bad. Even this blog is my way of starting some productive conversations, and it has, especially with people I already know.

I wonder, though, what it does to my level of empathy when it can be drained dry time after time by a parade of headlines and statues and reactions. Will I still be able to love my neighbor—even notice my neighbor—when so many other voices are louder and more all-present?

I wonder if I get too much validation out of blog comments and shares and likes, if the reason I want to speak is to hear myself talk, or at least to be known and appreciated. At the end of the day, are my opinions all about me?

I wonder how many more times I’m going to speak too soon or too forcefully about something I don’t know much about. The Internet is full of self-made experts, and I can join them with the push of a “Publish” button. Through years of practice, I can also tell a story, spin a phrase, draw a crowd. But—in classic Jurassic-Park-quote sense, but without the dinosaurs—should I, just because I can?

As usual, all I really have to offer you are questions. That, I think, might be good. It seems like lots of people are offering answers and stances and solutions at full-blast volume everywhere you look (but wait, there’s more—we’ll throw in some biased commentary for free!), so the least I can do is bring a few questions to balance things out.

There are only a few things I’m sure of:

In a loud world, we need more time for silence.

In an opinionated world, we need more thoughtful uncertainty that pursues answers but doesn’t assume they’re always going to be clear or easy.

In a crazy, violent, mixed-up world—when we ourselves have selfish, anxious, mixed-up hearts—we need more truth and less noise, and sometimes that means turning to praying instead of posting, resting instead of ranting, talking things through with a friend instead of the Internet at large.

This isn’t about standing by and refusing to take action on important issues. It’s not about editing all opinions out of our social media (although I’m a huge fan of being more gracious online).

My challenge is simply this: don’t let your online emotions become your only ones.

Mourn in real life, in prayer and in conversations about how we can do better. Love your actual neighbor instead of only eulogizing people you never knew. Take the long route to form an opinion, collecting different perspectives and considering other sides, instead of reacting to every news item that comes along.

And know that you are a person, not a selfie. You’re living a life, not a content feed. What you think and feel is significant, even if the masses don’t hear it. It may not change the world or even gather a lot of “likes”—but it will change you and the way you interact with others. And that matters.