It was late-night social media scrolling that got me. I was in bed, tired enough to go to sleep. But instead of shutting my eyes, I reached for my phone.
The news has been discouraging of late, and I’m ashamed to admit that my witnessing of this moment in history has become more focused on indulging in the contentious and polarizing posts of my impassioned virtual “friends.”
I knew who the primary players were, and I wasn’t disappointed. I quickly found posts with overcomplicated or oversimplified claims, each side hefting moral condemnation on anyone who didn’t see the situation du jour in the same manner as the poster. The invectives were flying in full force, ranging from ill-intent to hatefulness, ignorance, and outright stupidity. That does not make for good bedtime reading.
And then I saw it.
“Unfriend Me Now”
It wasn’t the general content of the post that surprised me. It was fairly garden-variety outrage for these times. Though I didn’t personally agree with the claims, I had become somewhat immune to attempts at labeling the reader simply for disagreeing. So it wasn’t that either. It was a demand nestled inside of it that struck me in a particular way: “Unfriend me now.”
I re-read the post and was thoughtful. I’m not naïve enough to think that we’ve just now reached the point where differing opinions and the justifications for these differences have led to some sort of new, exclusive tribalism. It was just startling to see it laid out so plainly. Whether it’s about coronavirus, social unrest over racial equity, or the upcoming election, if you don’t agree with me, I reject you. And I hate to admit it, but it stung a little.
Focusing on What I Can Control
I’ve since steered myself away from indulging in the social media fray (particularly at bedtime). But still, this wouldn’t end up being the last time I’d see a polarizing post accompanied by the demand that the disagreeing reader “unfriend me now.” What I’ve had to square myself with was why I was so troubled by it. And I think I’ve figured it out.
It’s the belief that there’s nothing about me outside of my declared commitment to a particular perspective on a set of extremely complex issues that justifies my moral character. It’s the belief that if I don’t express my values, even shared values in many cases, by agreeing to the same causes and solutions, I am a terrible person not worth knowing.
So what’s the solution to this kind of thinking? I’d recently read a book called Redefining Possible that had quite a bit to say about orienting your life to create entirely new possibilities for yourself. Some of those principles came to mind as I wondered about my reaction to being told to unfriend someone.
It’s true that I can’t crawl into the headspace of people who have adopted a mantra of wholesale judgment and rejection. It’s also true that I’m not responsible for and can’t control what anyone else thinks. That’s why I believe that now, more than ever, it’s paramount that I know who I am — that I know what I value and live a life that aligns with those values.
And these two seemingly elementary things are easier said than done. Does fair-mindedness, a value I claim to treasure, actually come through in my behavior? If someone asked an acquaintance of mine to describe me, would fair-mindedness be one of the qualities they’d list? Although I’m sure that I enjoy being on the receiving end of fair-mindedness, to enact it enough that it becomes part of my identity requires focus and intention. It requires constantly checking in with myself in my personal and professional interactions. And the same goes for any other values that I’ve identified as being important to who I am, such as honesty, integrity, generosity, and kindness.
By centering these values in my life and intentionally pursuing actions that demonstrate them, I am proving to myself what kind of person I am, in spite of what anyone else thinks of me.
To learn more about identifying your values and consistently enacting them, check out Redefining Possible by Ron Alford.
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