A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a fairly intense discussion with someone about the nature of existence, about why we are here and whether there is a point to all of this.  We talked about the passion people have for ideas and the beliefs they hold onto tightly, without any real evidence to support them.  We spoke of the heated debates folks have on social media over issues like gun violence and racism and whether one person’s politics is better than another’s.  Initially, we both had the same idea: that this was a kind of an empty, baseless existence, a road to nowhere, if you will.  He truly believes that; his world view allows him to live in a kind of survival mode most of the time, and find things occasionally which he enjoys to do to make his time here less of a drudgery.  I, on the other hand, think this is a new idea for me and believe it stems from a temporary dissatisfaction with my life and depression.

As we spoke, we were trying to come up with ways to resolve some of the conflict that arises between people who disagree. His solution was, he said, simple. People needed to mind their own business. They needed, in essence, to keep their opinions to themselves and stop sharing personal information and intimate details about their lives with others. Most people, according to him, don’t care except in a nosy, voyeuristic way.  If everyone just keeps his or her personal stuff within the confines of a very small group – like the family or an intimate group of friends who all shares the same beliefs and ideals – then conflict is greatly diminished and potentially eliminated and people are less stressed and happier.

Already I saw a problem.  A difference of opinion, if you will.  And that is, I think, at the crux of the matter. We are individuals with our own thoughts, ideas, and opinions but we are also intensely social creatures. Put two or more of us together, and conflict is likely to arise at some point. Is that necessarily a bad thing?  I don’t think so.  At least not if we learn to deal with conflict in constructive ways that don’t harm others.

I suspect we are a long, long way from living in a world where everyone is communicating in a mindful, non-violent way. For at least some of us that are learning how to temper our speech, thoughts, and actions, though, it is a life-long journey and welcome change to the anger, conflict, and constant barrage of judgment that exists in the world. It’s really tough, though, and as we were talking I asked myself what the best counter to his “minding your own business” would be if we wanted to keep conflict at a minimum.

I think that conflict and judgment arise, in part, because of a lack of understanding.  If my neighbor stays inside all day long and only comes out after dark fully dressed to work in her garden and water her grass, I’m going to think she’s a little whacky. If she makes a lot of noise or brings her dog out with her, who barks and disturbs me, I’m probably going to get annoyed.  But chances are, if she and I were introduced to each other and had a conversation and she explained to me ahead of time that she had an illness that prevented her from being out in the sunlight, so she could only work in her yard at night, I would likely be a lot more understanding.  I may even go join her some evenings.

One of the ways I think we can begin to decrease the amount of conflict is by increasing our own engagement with others and the world. By openly sharing our own stories – especially the difficult, ugly ones.  By courageously stepping out of our private spaces and exposing ourselves – even briefly – to show others that they are not alone.  Because conflict and difficulty arise when there is disagreement and misunderstanding.  They also arise when our emotions go unchecked, when we are so attached to our own beliefs and stories that we decide they are “better” than everybody else’s and we need to show others where they are wrong in their thinking.

We all don masks that belie the real “us” when we are around others, even when we are on social media. We want others to think things are perfect, the house is clean and uncluttered, the dinner is cooked, the toys are picked up, the bills are all paid, and everyone is healthy.  But in fact, rarely is any of that true. And pretending it’s true only creates more stress and distance in all of us.

So what’s the alternative?

Truth and radical honesty.  And let me tell you something you already know, it’s a scary thing to be truthful these days. It’s almost terrifying sometimes to say what you think or believe or know in a circle of others who have a different perspective. Because almost certainly, you will be belittled or verbally degraded or humiliated or even, in some cases, physically threatened, for what you express, because you dare challenge the status quo.

But I’m learning, after a great many years of suffering with the burden of dark secrets, that truth and honesty in everything – as long as you are able to keep yourself safe and maintain a deep measure of compassion – are the only ways to move forward and live peacefully in the world.

  1. Thank you. I think the masks you describe are especially employed on social media, in the disembodied context which can (often, but not always) distance us from each other. This brings to mind the idea that as we engage with others on social media, it’s important to remember that we compare someone else’s outside (cultivated image, mask) with our own insides. Which gets messy!

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