DIALOG by John Blase and Winn Collier
I want to describe my life in hushed tones
like a TV nature program. Dawn in the north.
His nose stalks the air for newborn coffee.
Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser
I don’t know whether it’s that I’m simply getting older or the world is really an angrier place. When I use that phrase—“the world”—I’m thinking primarily of the online space in which many of us sort of live and kind of move and have at least a portion of our being. Sure, there are links and blog posts and poems and stories to be found where the syncopation of grief and gladness are a truly magnificent thing. But on the whole, the social media score is one of outrage, an out-of-control violence via words. And again, it may be that I’m simply getting older, but who in his right mind wants to listen to that? I remember several years ago a phrase that was making the rounds: “compassion fatigue.” It was during that time when everybody and his grandma were advocating for a cause, all legitimately good. But the pleas were so numerous and, honestly, at times overwhelming that it wore folks out. Normally good-hearted, uber-compassionate people sighed and said, “Too much. I need a break.” People backed off, and a number of organizations floundered for a while. In a not-exactly-but-somewhat-similar way, that’s what I currently feel in my aging bones. I’ve got outrage fatigue. I need a break. Truth be told, I think we all do.
Last week, a friend and I had a long conversation, traversing difficult and important questions. We don’t see eye to eye, and the meat of our conversation has real consequences (theological, cultural, relational)—the sort of topics that often get the blood boiling. However, in that space, we met as friends, not combatants. I know she cares for me and has no desire to trap or maul me with an ideological hammer. I trust her. And I do believe we both left our conversation more human, more humble, with an open door for many more conversations to follow.
I would even say the conversation energized me—something that, given the gravity of what we were discussing, comes as a small miracle. In other words, this interaction between friends was the exact opposite of the “outrage fatigue” you feel—the same fatigue I feel in my (almost as aging) bones, too. You know what we shared that’s missing in so many of our social media interactions? Kindness, this most basic human (and Christian) posture. We were committed to protect the other’s dignity, to treat one another with the relentless tenderness befitting each of God’s image bearers.
Can you imagine what our political discourse and theological spats would be like if we were the sort of people who felt free to offer our unedited self, knowing that our friends were planning to discover the best in us and receive what was worth keeping? If this were our experience, I bet you our weariness would melt like ice on a summer day.
I agree with you: Kindness like that is core to the Christian life, a part of the fruit of the Spirit. But it seems in such short supply these days. I think you’re familiar with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye— at least her name if not her work. She has a poem titled “Kindness.” You’ve got to look this one up, pal. The first stanza begins:
Before you know what
kindness really is
you must lose things
And the last stanza starts with these two lines:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer by any stretch, but my gut tells me that the poet has her finger on the pulse of truth here. That there’s something to having lived a long time, at least long enough to have accumulated some sorrow. I know it sounds judgy of me, but while our culture is definitely one of loss, I’m not sure we’ve found the sorrow to accompany that. Does that make even a lick of sense?
It does make sense to me. My hunch is that we feel little genuine sorrow, partly because we haven’t allowed ourselves to truly grapple with the pain of our own brokenness, misguided motives, muddled conclusions, fear and insecurity, and (if left to ourselves) utter helplessness. If I haven’t been forced to make peace with my befuddlement over my own life, how can I treat you with gentleness as you seek to make peace with yours? Isn’t this where your friend Brennan Manning would, with that glimmer in his eye, lean forward and say, “Now, what you’re missing here is grace”? When I allow myself to wallow in God’s reckless kindness toward me, I’m certain to insist that others jump in and join the fun. If I’ve learned, by lavish encounters with God’s generosity and mirth, to be gentle with my own failures, then I will be gentle with others’ shortcomings, too. How do our outrage and churlish temper tantrums fit into this picture?
I believe that part of our dilemma strikes a place tender to the touch. Much of the reason we heap outrage on others is because we feel this immense outrage against ourselves. I believe that often we’re venting our own shame. This shame, with its debilitating stranglehold on our heart, tells us in a thousand ways that we are screw-ups, that we must prove our worth, that we must make the right judgments and show everyone how we have made the right judgments. We rage against others in desperate attempts to fend off the rage we assume will rush toward us if folks ever saw the truth. Our outrage reveals a deep sadness and fear among so many of us.
Yes, Brennan “the Ragamuffin” Manning would insist that self-hatred is still the monkey on our collective back, that it is the fuel for most—if not all—of our words and actions in this mad, mad world. And oddly enough, I believe a kind of sorrow is the antidote to that condition and the on-ramp to kindness. But we’ve got to be careful here and strain for precise language, as poet Elizabeth Alexander urges, or we’ll simply keep chasing our tails. I’m afraid people hear the word “sorrow” and automatically think sad, mopey Eeyore shuffling around the Hundred Acre Wood. It’s not surprising we want to avoid that.
It seems there is some assistance for us, though, from the apostle Paul. He mentions a godly sorrow—one that leads to repentance, that causes us to turn, turn, turn and live differently, like being kind instead of unkind. (See 2 Cor. 7:8-11.) I’m willing to bet my boots that when you and your friend sat down to talk the other day, there was some sorrow coursing through both of you, and that helped keep the conversation kind. But I doubt either one of you would have used the phrase “godly sorrow” to describe what was behind the scene. I doubt I would have, either; we simply don’t talk that way.
It’s interesting. The moment I read your description of the kind of sorrow you’re not talking about (the Eeyore stuff), my mind immediately went to Paul and the godly sorrow that leads us to life. Maybe we’re onto something. I remember a parishioner who, feeling a mass of unnerving anxiety about a hot-button social issue, asked what I thought we should say to our friends who disagreed with our understanding of the question. I told him that in this instance, I didn’t think we should say anything at all to our friends unless we were able to shed tears with our friends. Until we could feel another’s pain and truly “bear one another’s burdens,” (i.e., be like Jesus), then we might do better to keep our mouth shut.
So often, these moments of outrage—these places where we stoke our ire and launch into our verbal conquests—suffer from abstraction. We don’t consider the actual people who will receive the force of our words. And yet all of us, no matter who we are or what we believe, face similar conundrums. At one point or another, we are all brokenhearted, we are all fearful, we have all experienced the sting of rejection. Most of us know what it’s like to be simply trying to make sense of the chaos around us. We know what it is to feel lost. We are all human, all of us imperfect and (at least most of us) doing the best we know to do.
Until we can grapple honestly with the deep fissures in our world and how so many things in us and around us have gone so terribly wrong, then I don’t know that we are in a good place to be outraged about much of anything. John’s gospel recounts how, after encountering the sorrow of those around Him—the heaviness and pain of death and ruin—Jesus wept. If our outrage is true (and surely at times some kind of outrage is appropriate), there must be tears as well.
In my moments of outrage fatigue, I do find myself praying, or at least trying to pray. I really don’t know where else to turn; it seems as if the only option is reaching out for the What-a-Friend-we-have who can bear all our griefs. And if this is true (and I believe it is), then the Man of Sorrows can bear all that outrage plus any fatigue I might have that accompanies it. M. Scott Peck once wrote, “The healing of evil ... can be accomplished only by the love of individuals. A willing sacrifice is required ... He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil ... Whenever this happens, there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.” That’s what Jesus did, and as fatiguing as it is, I believe I’m called to do likewise: to “take it.” That may be the most potent kindness we can offer these days—a hushed tone of forgiveness, for we know not what we do. And that “we” includes, first and foremost, well, “me.”
Well, I guess we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? We’re back to kindness, enacted prayerfully, as the antidote to dehumanizing outrage. Paul puts these things together as well, so I guess we’re in good company. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander,” Paul says. But you can’t just expel rage and anger (a good way to describe the kind of outrage we’re talking about). No, you’ve got to replace them with something truer, something more beautiful. So he adds, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32 NIV). And that, it seems to me, is Paul’s prayer for us as well.
That’s a good word; I like that very much. Yes, I have to admit there are legitimate reasons for outrage and anger, in my own life and the lives of others. And furthermore, it’s legit to “get rid” of that stuff, get it out, not to stuff it down or diminish it. However, for the believer, that exhale must be followed by the inhalation of the life-giving oxygen of whatever is lovely (Phil. 4:8). The Christian life really is learning how to breathe, isn’t it? Some days, breathing fire from our nostrils. Other times, breathing the air of hushed tones. All days, staying mindful that we even breathe at all due to the One who is most infinitely kind.
Illustrations by Rami Niemi