“All things by immortal power,/Near or far,/Hiddenly,/To each other linked are,/That thou canst not stir a flower/Without troubling of a star.” – Francis Thompson
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” – John Donne
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” – Newton’s Third Law
I could go on with the quotes, but I think you get the point. We are all connected. No action exists in a vacuum. No choice, no word is without consequence. We know this. We see with incredible clarity the effects of the choices of others upon our lives. But how often do we own our own actions and the ramifications of those actions, for good or ill?
In this era of instant connectivity, we need more than ever to be aware of the so-called “butterfly effect,” that gem of chaos theory. The butterfly effect is a metaphor stating that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in South America can change the weather in Central Park. It was used in reference to the predictability (or lack thereof) of long term weather patterns, referencing the incredibly complex equations upon which these patterns rest. In life, the metaphor can be stretched a bit further. Small, seemingly localized actions can take on tremendous consequence. Sometimes these events are benign or amusing: a video of a laughing baby goes “viral,” a snake goes missing and within a few days has over 200,000 followers on Twitter. Yet, other choices speak to a darker side of humanity.
Speech is good. I’m a writer; by default, I am a huge fan of open communication. As a recovering, conflict-avoidant introvert, I also recognize the danger of keeping words buried within. Yet, words have power. The effect of language to inspire, wound, and persist is evident throughout documented history. Through the internet, and particularly social media, we have developed a 10 second attention span (perhaps less, did you just blink? Oh look, a kitty!) and an infinite presence. The words that we publish with a single click last. Forever? Until the machines take over? I don’t know, but they are out there. Google yourself. Go on, I dare you, just this once. That comment you posted on a forum last year, it’s there. It may even be on multiple sites. You can’t undo it – no takebacks.
In the 90’s, there was a great animated series called The Animaniacs. This deliciously snarky show had a recurring short feature called “Good Idea, Bad Idea.” The premise was simple. A skeleton in a bowler hat enacted two similar sounding, yet disastrously different concepts. “Good idea – climbing a mountain. Bad idea – climbing a mountain lion.” There are days when looking through Facebook, Twitter, etc, leads me to believe that either many people did not watch enough 90’s television, or that we integrated the wrong lessons.
Good idea – posting a well-thought-out comment, correction, or critique below an article. Bad idea – indiscriminately bashing the author for his views, choices, lifestyle, and hair color.
Good idea – honestly discussing an argument, misunderstanding, or other pain with a friend, spouse, etc. Bad idea – trashing that person on your Facebook wall, their wall, or the walls of unsuspecting friends or strangers.
Good idea – posting a single correction to an error in a review of your book. (Better idea, privately communicating that correction to the author; or just leaving well-enough alone.) Bad idea – posting a nuclear meltdown series of rants on the reviewer’s blog.
Good idea – engaging members of other faiths in discussion about the similarities and differences of your religion. Talking about fears, concerns, and hopes. Bad idea (Tragically disastrous idea) – burning the holy text of another faith.
The examples could go on almost as long as these words will bounce around whatever electronic trampoline the internet provides, but I think you get the point. Recently, I interviewed a life coach for an article I was writing. In our discussion, she said something that stuck. She mentioned the importance of recognizing that we “co-create” our circumstances. This concept is fundamental. It goes back to childhood. Come on, say it with me… “It takes two to start a fight.” Indulging in a culture of victimhood serves no one. Occasionally, as with certain violent crimes, we may be true victims of circumstance. However, we choose our circumstances more often than they choose us, and failure to acknowledge our ownership of our lives denigrates not only ourselves but humanity as a whole.
When we speak, we choose to release words that others may not want to hear. Just as it is our right and choice to speak our “truth,” it is the right of others to disagree with or to be offended by that truth. When I write, I force myself to pretend that I am writing in an impenetrable bubble. I can’t put my thoughts into words if I imagine a world looking over my shoulders and being hurt or offended. But, before I seal the envelope or hit send, I must imagine every one of those people, and admit to myself that even my most benign words may give pain or offense. When the comments come, I have to be prepared for the reality that I will be misunderstood, that I will be judged. Here I have choices: lash out in pain; retreat into my hole and never type another word; or look again at my words, making corrections or accepting that my truth may not be the truth of others.
With the evolution of the ever-present, but somewhat ersatz support network of social media, it is easy to succumb to the lure of airing every emotion publicly in our search for understanding. I’ve done it. I bet you have too. But, how much do we have the right to share? When it is no longer just our pain, but that of another person, does the dirty laundry get to go out on the line? Speaking of lines, where is that line? What is the distinction between venting about a rough day with my unruly children and exposing the growing pains of my kids to the world? Where is the line between bitching with the girlfriends about “men” and releasing a private beef with one’s spouse to all? And, do you really want to put that argument out there? How long will it be before others see your role? Can you look in that mirror?
All of these things pale before the horror of religious warfare. Even I can’t blame modern culture for this one. Humans have destroyed one another in the name of God or of gods for millennia. But I was struck by the words of one of the pastors responsible for the Quran burning in Florida. “Wayne Sapp, a pastor at the church, called the events "tragic," but said he did not regret the actions of his church.
"I in no way feel like our church is responsible for what happened," Sapp said in a telephone interview on Friday.” – NPR
If you feel strongly enough about another faith to burn its holiest text, shouldn’t you own your view enough to accept that members of that faith may have a violent or outraged reaction to your act?
One last quote to close:
“Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.” Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”