With the world twisting and turning from one extreme to another environmentally, politically and culturally, I find myself reflecting upon the credos that helped form the character of modern generations. People of various faiths as well as many who do not consider themselves religious will refer to the widely known Golden Rule urging humans to resist doing to others what they would not wish done to them. It is likely the most commonly quoted rule and least embraced.
A second tenet, often aimed at children, says: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” While not a bad suggestion for many situations, saying something nice instead of carefully saying something honest can be misleading or encouraging of a behavior best left unsupported. A harmless example comes to mind from a pastor who told of a thoughtful parishioner serving him elderberry pie and he, not wanting to disappoint in spite of his distaste, complimented it only to be rewarded later with a whole pie. In these days of everyone speaking their minds on social media without some forethought and preparation, the results often do more harm than the pie error.
The art of active listening needs a revival, having been lost in all the technological chaos. Active listening happens when an intentional listener says “So, I hear you saying that ________. Did I hear you right?”, followed by a thoughtful, if opposing reply. Thus a more civil discussion can ensue without rancor and with the hope of some mutual respect and new understanding of the “other side.”
One of the most questionable sayings shaping my thinking for some years as an adult is: “Never talk about politics or religion in mixed company.” In retrospect I believe it would have been wiser to speak openly and carefully without avoiding relevant situations. Opportunities to share and receive knowledge and experiences in mixed company can be eye-opening.
Part of what is causing so much strife is that the old walls of separation among religious denominations and cultural groupings have been crumbling. Intelligent people are crossing over to listen, finding commonalities that include both positives and negatives, finding new awareness in the stories and traditions of others. Old attitudes toward religions, cultures and physical differences are slowly changing. It should be no surprise that people are struggling with the changes. It is encouraging to see talk show hosts and presidential candidates speaking openly about the importance of faith in their lives while not emphasizing a particular faith tradition.
Women in particular are often reluctant to speak their minds, deferring to the positions taken by their spouses, friends and relatives. My husband and I often laugh about the many occasions when we cancelled each other’s votes for elected officials. It is not a bad thing for children to see their relatives and other elders disagreeing. Many politically diverse families enjoy debating issues, but in some cultural traditions a wife will honor her husband by making his choices hers. Younger generations are not so likely to accept that practice.
Several years ago I stumbled upon a saying that surprised me. It advises that any strength taken to the extreme becomes a weakness, meaning whatever you are really good at can boomerang. For example, persons comfortable with speaking spontaneously need to be careful about overusing that talent. In a time when many are intent upon communicating thoughts and photos instantly, more opportunities for controlled face-to-face discussion and sharing of experiences without the artificial ego boost that comes with electronic encounters would be valuable.
Education is key. In these days of competing realities, educators at all levels must be armed with the skills needed to give students opportunities to encounter each other respectfully, honestly and face to face. Here in the tri-county area some school districts and faith communities are supporting Gay Straight Alliances where youth of all sexual orientations can meet and hear each other speak their truth. Such encounters require skilled, experienced leadership, but they guarantee improved self-awareness plus respect for self and others, valuable benefits in the fight against depression, bullying, drug abuse and suicide now at an all-time high. (Contact Benton Harbor’s OutCenter for information.)
If experience is the best teacher, upcoming generations will profit from repeated opportunities for wisely guided discourse.
Melinda Stibal lives in Coloma. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org