Today, every topic broached is immediately polarizing and leads to rigidly drawn lines between two opposing sides. John O’Leary shares how to veer away from this hostile, divisive path and instead draw a new inclusive one.
“Love is wise; hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. But if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance.” -Bertrand Russell
Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter?
Police or Protesters?
Democrat or Republican?
Right or wrong?
In our society, every topic immediately polarizes, fragments us further, and quickly leads to rigidly drawn lines between two opposing sides. Those on our perceived side are right, they’re our allies, the good guys. Those on the other side are to be pitied for their unawareness, canceled for their ignorance or attacked for their stupidity.
So what’s ultimately going to be the result of this elevating anger? What happens as our media complicity sows seeds of outrage each day and our political leaders jam a larger wedge into society? What are the consequences if we choose to continue down the hostile, divisive path we’re on?
Well, the answer was framed brilliantly in one of my favorite poems by James Patrick Kinney. Written in the early 1960s, it is, sadly, highly relevant today. The poem is titled The Cold Within:
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In dark and bitter cold.
Each possessed a stick of wood,
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs,
But the first one held hers back.
For, of the faces around the fire,
She noticed one was black.
The next one looked across the way
Saw one not of his church,
And could not bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich.
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of wealth he had in store,
And keeping all that he had earned
From the lazy, shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight,
For he saw in his stick of wood
A chance to spite the white.
And the last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving just to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Their sticks held tight in death’s stilled hands
Was proof enough of sin;
They did not die from cold without…
They died from cold within.
With external forces like hurricanes in the Gulf, forest fires in California, nationwide social unrest and a global pandemic, it’s not unreasonable to feel discouraged. With rising unemployment, increased loneliness, elevated dread, growing mistrust and heightened anxiety, it should come as no surprise many feel as if they are sitting around a fire, angry at the others, furious about their past, incensed by their plight, and distraught by their future.
Through inaction or action, by omission or commission, through violence or subtle indifference, it’s one way to move forward from where we are. And it will lead to us grasping tightly the wood in our hands as the fire slowly dies.
We can make a radically different decision to embrace deep personal accountability for where we are, determine to come back together, engage with those different than ourselves and listen to their opinions. Rather than ranting, posting or canceling, we can listen with an open mind and open heart capable of actually learning from those who have had wildly different life experiences than our own. We can acknowledge that the redemption of today’s profound challenges demand far more than a single party, one opinion or pithy social media posts.
My friends, it’s important to recognize that past mistakes don’t have to negatively define the possibility of doing better going forward. It’s critical to remember that hate and anger and ignorance can not possibly cure hate and anger and ignorance. In our wondrously diverse community, it’s necessary to love and respect one another despite differences in opinions, beliefs, and convictions.
Not sure where you can begin?
Search out and build relationships with individuals who worship, look, vote, and think differently than you do. Begin listening to understand, empathize, connect and grow. Instead of being incited by watching the news, get involved by becoming active as a volunteer within a community. Your service will frequently connect you with those you might not meet otherwise. [In fact, why not join one of the best at positively changing society, one life at a time: Big Brothers, Big Sisters? It will set you in motion to better the life of another. Remarkably, though, the life you’ll improve most is your own.]
As the fire begins to wane and the light begins to fade, it’s time to return to the circle, together.
It’s time to learn from mistakes we’ve made for too long, knock down walls we’ve built to keep others out, and reengage in solutions that elevate not only individuals, but also culture. It’s time to not only take full responsibility for our lives, but to recognize the calling to serve as our brothers and sisters keepers, too.
In other words, in a marketplace where many angrily and selfishly hold fast to their wood, it’s time for us to throw ours onto the fire.
This is your day. Live Inspired.