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Today, I cried about someone’s car stickers.

I’ve always been fascinated by the biographizing of the backs of vehicles. When I pull up at a stoplight next to someone and can tell where they live, where their children go to school and what sports they play and their jersey numbers, how many people are in their family and their genders and birth order, and how many dogs, cats and fish live with them, I’m surprised. That’s a lot of information to know about someone I have never met.

Usually, these sticker displays don’t make me emotional, but this has been a tough week for us as a nation. Maybe we’re all a little on edge. Maybe I’m just a little messy because I’m still grieving a loss in my own family. Maybe I was just having a bad day.

Today, I saw a sticker that said simply, “My Family.”

Below the words were little pictures of guns. Big guns, medium sized guns, and small handguns.

Before I realized what was happening, there were tears welling up in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

Why? Why does it matter to me if someone has gun stickers representing her family members on the back of her car?

I’ve been trying all day to figure that out.

I’m not a gun owner, but many of my friends and family do own guns. They are those responsible, law-abiding citizens that everyone talks about.

They are people who own guns.

They are also people who have kids, who buy groceries, who mow their lawns and wash their dishes. They have a love/hate relationship with Wal-mart.  They eat pie. They wear socks. They use toothpaste and toilet paper and probably don’t floss quite as often as they should…just like me.

We don’t really talk about guns much…maybe we should?…but I love and respect them and their right to have their guns. To carry their guns. To shoot their guns.

We talk about lots of other stuff. Why don’t we talk about guns?

My guess is that we’re all aware of the New National Rule of Civility: don’t introduce any topic of conversation on which you might disagree with someone.

Remember the Old National Rule of Civility? Don’t talk about religion or politics at dinner.

Now, we shouldn’t talk about them at all. Ever.

As a culture, we have lost the ability to discuss anything of importance. There is no such thing as civil discourse any more.

We can repost cat memes all day long and share funny pictures of kids and elves-off-their-shelves making big messes in our houses, but we can’t talk about the Giant Elephant in the Room (and whether or not he might be armed).

I am a conflict-avoidant person. I don’t like tension, and I get uncomfortable when people get heated in their disagreements. I understand the instinct responsible for not wanting to ruffle people’s feathers.

What I don’t understand is getting to a place in this national non-conversation where we can only communicate in labels and absolutes.

The woman beside me at the stoplight, a fellow Virginia driver…is she a Gun Person? Or is she a Person Who Owns a Gun?

If you happen to be a Gun Person, does the fact that you own a gun define you…where the main thing you want a stranger to know about you sitting at a stoplight is that you are a Gun Person?

I am Not Exactly A Gun Person. I’m not sure how I feel about guns, exactly…and I’m not exactly sure how to feel about that sticker.

Does her choice to represent her family with gun stickers mean that she has one in her car? In her purse?

Does that mean that if I park where she wanted to park, she might threaten me? She wouldn’t shoot me, right? Should I feel intimidated or afraid?

What is the purpose of showing me a gun for each member of your family on the back of your car?

Three years ago this month, a gunman walked into a school and killed 26 people, 20 of them children. Since then, it feels like we have a national case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. (Does it feel like that to you, too?)

I feel like people are now emphatically saying one of two things:

This is ALL ABOUT GUNS.

or, this has NOTHING TO DO WITH GUNS.

Could it not be a little of both?

Could I humbly suggest a different possibility?

The main problem we are having is not guns. It’s fear.

Fear is what makes people shoot each other. Guns are what people use to shoot each other.

Fear is also what makes people scream at each other, which doesn’t require any weapon at all.

Most of us aren’t even actually sitting in the same room when we have these heated conversations, but there’s a lot of screaming. A lot of CAPITAL LETTERS and strong language. A lot of forgetting that the person on the other side of that comment box is more than just the words he typed there.

A person.

The trouble with all this conversation is that it isn’t really a conversation at all.

No one is listening, because all we’re doing is reading and reacting. Or overreacting. We hide the people in our newsfeeds that irritate us by posting things that make us angry. We reinforce each other’s opinions and preferences until we believe that everyone in the “real” world thinks the way we do.

Then, if we happen to encounter someone with a different mindset, we are so astonished that we think they are less human than we are. They must be. All the rational people we know, the ones with whom we surround ourselves, think like we do.

Three years ago, I was mourning the lack of civil discourse. Three years ago, the world felt like a darker, scarier place than it ever had before.

Things have only gotten worse since then.

You know what, though? I still think that pretty much everyone is doing the best she can. She’s working, paying her bills, raising her kids, and reheating her leftovers. She’s wrapping her gifts for Christmas or Hanukkah and scrolling through the ridiculous number of coupons and sales offers in her e-mail. She’s worrying about her aging parents or her sister who has cancer. She’s trying to find enough boxes of candy canes that are the same flavor to give out to her Sunday School class and trying to find the number for the pizza place that has free delivery.

She’s probably not trying to start a war.

But when I was next to her today at the stoplight, I felt anxious, maybe even afraid of her. Because she’s a Gun Person, and that means we aren’t the same, and I kind of hoped she wouldn’t end up next to me at Target in the parking lot.

When we stop believing that everyone is made in the image of God, regardless of her opinion on guns or refugees or any other issue, we give up part of our humanity.

We become part of the problem.

Before you type out those words that fly into your head, before you take your rapidly beating heart and sweating palms and translate them into keystrokes, just stop. Take a deep breath. Close the computer, put down your phone, go for a walk or hug your kids. Whatever you do, don’t dump your words like gasoline on the fire that’s already burning out of control.

We don’t have to choose to make things worse.

We don’t have to choose to build walls between ourselves and our neighbors.

We don’t have to choose to see each other as the enemy.

The only people that can fix this are the people who still have the sense to take a step back and realize how crazy the whole thing is.

The only people who can fix this are people like you and me.

We have a national problem, and we probably have different ideas about how to fix it, and we can shout about them all day and all night long…but until someone starts listening to someone else, nothing can come of it. Nothing will change.

So take a deep breath. Reach out to someone, ask what she thinks, and be willing to listen. We have to stop being afraid of each other. This is the only way anything can ever change.

It’s the only way we can ever heal.

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