In the aftermath of a tight election outcome, it seems that while many matters are important to consider, one is more pressing: We are struggling to love our neighbors.
We are not any more or less fallible than human beings in past generations. Humans are humans, capable of profound works of love, compassion, and ingenuity as well as malice, destruction, and banality. Yet in our current milieu, it appears our political divisions are as rancorous as they have ever been.
The problem could be the particular messages themselves — Lower marginal tax rates! Higher marginal tax rates! The Iran deal was bad! The Iran deal was good! Build the wall! Don’t build the wall! — and sometimes it is. More often, though, the issue is that the medium has become the message.
Interacting digitally is as consequential as the messages we are sharing. Our social media and meme-based interactions generally do not promote understanding. Rather, they facilitate misunderstanding and division because they are disembodied.
We all know the poison of online comments sections and the Twitter trolls and random Facebookers who say outrageous things. I am not the first and will not be the last to lament our digital connectedness ripping the national fabric.
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
What can repair this breach? The answer is simple: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As recorded in the gospels, Jesus gave this commandment to love others second only to the greatest commandment: to love God.
You might ask, what does it mean to love my neighbor? Are my neighbors only the people who live geographically proximate to me? Certainly not. A lawyer in the first-century world asked the itinerant teacher Jesus of Nazareth, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with a story many of us know as the Good Samaritan.
In the story, robbers severely beat and rob a Jewish man and leave him half dead on the side of the road. Two different members of the clergy walk by, indifferent to the man’s suffering. They choose not to see him. Eventually, a Samaritan, a rival ethnic group from the Israelites, stops to help the man. The Samaritan goes above and beyond to alleviate the man’s suffering by nursing his wounds and paying for his stay at a local inn.
People often understand the Good Samaritan story as a one-off “help a stranger in need” parable, but this view completely misses the point. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must be able to see them. Usually, our neighbors won’t be literally beaten, lying by the roadside, and they usually will not be complete strangers. They will instead be all around us, daily intruding into our lives with their needs. They also will often be quite different from us, perhaps even offensively different, as the Israelite man was to the Samaritan and vice versa.
The two men who passed by the beaten man chose willful blindness, pretending to be oblivious to his needs. The Samaritan saw the beaten man as an embodied, physical presence whom he had means and opportunity to help. He chose to see the victim’s need and have compassion on him, someone toward whom the Samaritan was supposed to be indifferent.
Many of us have not learned or have forgotten the muscle memory of loving our neighbor. We have chosen the disembodied, emotive frenzy of cable news, Facebook, and Twitter to try to connect with the world around us. We choose to ride the vagaries of tragedy and controversy concerning events that are happening 100, 1,000, or 10,000 miles away that in most cases will have no discernible effect on our daily lives.
In doing so, we choose to look away from the people around us: the obnoxious co-worker who is desperately lonely, the single mom who could use a night off, or the materially wealthy person who, although he “has it all,” is starved for real human connection. Human beings already have a prodigious capacity for self-deceit. The added layers of self-righteousness that arise from spending countless hours in the self-referential algorithmic vortex of social media positively blind us.
If we were to focus on the needs of those around us and eschew our devices and the news cycle more and more, the world would shift under our feet in the best way. At the risk of sounding like a facile high school graduation speech, we could “change the world.”
Part of the problem in news and media consumption is that we have, to borrow a phrase from Minneapolis-based writer James Lileks, “non-contiguous information streams.” We are essentially able to consume the news that fits our worldview to such a degree that, after a while, the broad political camps in the United States only talk past one another and not to each other.
To combat this, we should spend less time on our devices because we are so focused on those around us and their needs that the emotional and psychic vacuum of the news cycle simply cannot get traction in our lives. This will do two things. First, it will make us more pleasant and happy.
Second, it will have the salutary market effect of winnowing the least skilled and worst motivated actors in news and media, forcing them out. As a result, we will be pushed toward increased consolidation in media, making it more difficult to retain an audience when alarmism or salacious pandering to partisans is the modus operandi. It is hardly a perfect solution, but is it worse than our current setup? I think not.
Be a Friend
Elections have consequences, to be sure. The result of a Biden administration or a parallel universe where Donald Trump won a second term, however, pales in comparison with the would-be effect of tens of millions of Americans choosing to reduce substantially their engagement with their mobile devices, social media, and the news cycle more generally.
Tens of millions of Americans choosing instead to focus their attention on the needs of those around them, even those we find distasteful? That is a country of which I want to be a part.
If you feel the particular burden of public engagement, start first and foremost with your local municipality or town, your local councilman or alderwoman, or your local school board. The needs of so many people are all around us if we choose to open our eyes and embrace the discomfort of engaging real people with real problems, a discomfort that can lead to deep contentment as we see and love our neighbors. Let us choose this discomfort over the dopamine hit of social media, and over the false god of memes, the news cycle, and an outrage machine that exists to stoke our fears.
When my children get on the school bus every day, my wife says to them, “Find a friend who needs a friend.” Absolutely no election result, from now until forever, changes the fact that people around you need a friend. Find a friend who needs a friend, and choose to love that neighbor.