These are painstaking times, times of anxiety and chaos.
With political strife, health and economic crises, systems in disrepair, and an upcoming election, many of us in the United States find ourselves caught in the crossfire of extreme national impasse.
The collective pressure can be felt in the smallest interactions with friends, family, neighbors. Many of us feel polarization looming over our relationships, broad and cavernous.
Reading through the myriad of apocalyptic think pieces about the imminent collapse of society only exacerbates these anxieties, driving the wedge deeper as we look at those we love and feel a mighty urge to scream, “How can you possibly believe the way you do?”
It is into these moments that I ask you to pause with me and stare.
Stare into the eyes of your younger self who believed anything was possible if we would only just love each other.
Stare into the eyes of your older self who, in wisdom and grace, has finally managed to transcend all cynicism and vengeance.
Now come back to the present, and let us look at where we are.
Uncertainty Means Possibility
While we might not know where we are headed as a country, we are, in the very least, within a moment of transition and uncertainty. Though we don’t know where we are going, one thing is clear: we cannot remain as we were.
What we were, what we have been—culturally and as a people—is othering.
On all sides.
We shame, reject, and dehumanize anyone we disagree with. We have been shutting down honest engagement and questions that come from a place of curiosity, treating sincerity and bipartisanship like a liability. Instead of grappling with each other to find common good, instead of trying to win hearts and minds, we have sought to police hearts and minds.
We have become so alienated from each other that many sides now hold separate sets of facts. facts. We have become unwilling to grapple heartily together, unwilling to recognize there are things we don’t know, things we can’t see.
And as a result of this norm, resentment seethes across the aisle, and down the street, and all the way to the dinner table.
We have become a people of fragile and fractured relationships, so married to our chosen sides that our ability to reason together has become compromised.
Things cannot continue as they are.
The matte-grey lining of this immense storm cloud is that uncertain times create possibility. Why? Because outcomes have not yet been determined. Through the shake-up, we can choose transformation. We can choose to evolve.
Ear to the Ground
Through my exploits creating educational videos on the popular teeny-bopper app TikTok, I’ve had the honor of engaging thousands of people hungry for real, reasonable, deep engagement.
For the last two months, I’ve been making videos about intense subject matter like racism and social ethics. These videos have been consistently met with comments like, “Thank you for creating this content. Our educational systems have failed us.”
There was the conversation with a young person whose profile picture was an image of them flipping the bird at the camera. We engaged in a long comment thread about equality versus equity. The exchange started out a bit contentious, but apparently my casual comments of “thank you for taking the time to disagree with me,” and “you have a great mind,” made an impact. During our twenty-minute conversation, this young person changed their profile photo to the presidential seal.
There was the video I made about tips for navigating difficult conversations. In the video, I was sitting by my bonfire ring, enjoying the beauty of a Maine sunset. Multiple commenters remarked that they wished they could be there, with me, sitting around the fire and talking about “deep things.”
There was the conversation with a young man who said he felt like in these discussions about racism made him feel he needed to be ashamed for being white, that he had wanted to make a difference in the world but now he was giving up hope. I asked him what kind of difference he wanted to make. He told me he cared about racial equity but that he was only 14 and he didn’t feel like he could make a difference. I responded that he had “all the potential in the world” before him. I thanked him for his perspective. I told him I was glad he was engaging with me even though he didn’t agree with my video, and that it said a lot about him that he was spending a Saturday night talking to me about these issues. He said, “Wow, thank you for being so nice to me. Most people I talk to about this stuff just try to cancel me.”
These interactions have been utterly moving. I am not intent on saving anyone or being a role model with my content. I am only trying to promote education and critical engagement. However, the more I experience in these interactions, the more I witness a cultural void of creative, respectful, passionate discourse. This void has been compounded with isolation in the age of digital media, especially for younger generations who are crying out for connection. This void is even further compounded by the fear of being “canceled”—an extreme form of rejection and social death.
We Need A Revolution of Discourse
Connection is not only forged in strong interpersonal friendships, but it is also forged in meaning-making conversation. Psychologists have identified that those who spend more time having deep talks report higher happiness.
Beyond personal goals of happiness, discourse across difference is the glue of a cohesive society, the lifeblood of democracy. Without it, individual relationships and collective relationships wither.
Which brings us to the central question: Where are the spaces to have conversations? Where can we meet in the deepest recesses of disagreement and grapple, together? Spaces where we can sharpen each other in love? Spaces to escape character limits and sound-byte takedowns?
For the sake of ourselves and our culture, we need to talk, more deeply. We need to bring curiosity back into fashion. We need a revolution of hospitality, of humanity, of discourse.
In this time of polarization, I believe one of the most revolutionary things we can do is simply, to talk. Every time we engage each other across division, we challenge polarization. We make a proclamation about the people we want to be. Every time we commit to actually seeing each other, we rebel against hatred and chaos.
This revolution, whatever form will take, it will begin with a solitary and moving refrain, “What do you think? I honestly want to know.”