The Unexpected Blessing of Social Media

Can I say something that most people don’t seem to want to these days? I really kind of love social media. I know we’re supposed to be skeptical of it, nervous about it, burdened by it, bored with it – and I’ll admit that I was reluctant to get involved in it in the first place. But now? I’m so grateful for its place in my life.

So often social media is presented as a barrier to “real” relationships with people – as if people choose to stay home with their laptops and smartphones rather than go out into the world to be physically present to the people in their lives. Maybe that’s how it works for some. But for me, social media has been more boon than barrier.

Facebook allows me to connect with “IRL” family and friends better than pretty much anything else I can imagine, save a utopian walking community in which everyone’s backyards abut each other. My family is big and busy and mostly spread from one end of a sprawling metropolitan area to the other. Even if we saw each other more frequently than we do (and we see each other pretty frequently by most families’ standards), there’s only so much in-person catching up I could do with my 70-odd closest relatives (not exaggerating – I counted) given my responsibility for keeping track of these four relatives:

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And then there are the family members who live great distances from us. Because of Facebook, I know that my two little cousins in Maine are learning the art of beekeeping. I know that they’ve resumed their riding lessons and that they just swam in the lake for the first time this season. I get to cheer my cousin and his wife in San Diego as they run their (very intimidating and impressive to me) marathons and half-marathons. I get to watch my teenage and twenty-something cousins in St. Louis and Chicago and Nashville go off to proms and colleges and fall in love.

I get to know new friends more quickly and I get to know old friends better. I get to enjoy playdates where my girlfriends and I don’t feel like strangers from postponing a half-dozen times because somebody is always getting sick.

Social media also enables me to be “myself” better than any situation I can imagine. (Even my fantasy utopian communities have their limitations.) Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (I do limit it to the three) allow me to indulge in a custom mix of my favorite interests, values, and personalities – a cocktail of politics and history and faith, of smart/witty/wise/idealistic/self-deprecating Catholic writers, of home-making and child-rearing and beauty found in the ordinary.

They allow me to connect with people who share those interests and values, to make friendships that transcend geography.

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Social media gives me opportunities to understand people and to love them.

On a daily basis, it presents me with more diversity and a wider range of experiences and ideas than I would ever bump up against in my physical community. It helps me put myself in someone else’s shoes; it makes obvious to me the common threads that run through families and communities that seem so different.

Social media allows me to nurture a fondness, a tenderness, not just for my family and friends, but also for the loved ones of those I’ve loved somewhere along the way. (You should see the piercing blue eyes of my college roommate’s little girl and the deep brown eyes of my high school friend’s little boy. You should read the hilarious kid quotes. You should hear how beautifully my friends love their spouses, their siblings, their children, their parents.)

Social media allows me to feel my role in the Body of Christ, praying for and supporting those in need, working with others to accompany people through their trials.

Are there problems with social media and the role it has come to play in our lives? Of course there are. There are problems with just about every way in which we humans come together. When engaging in social media, we should hold to the same principles we (hopefully) do in other human interactions: be kind, consider where others are coming from, watch what you say, consider your own disposition, recognize that the world is full of people who are like and unlike you in a million important and not-so-important ways. Love. Enjoy the people you encounter. Accept the light they bring to your life and offer a little in return.

These Walls - The Unexpected Blessing of Social Media

Strangers in Our Own Land

The other night my husband and I were watching a Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl. He was sitting at the kitchen table with the laptop open before him, giving the baby a bottle. I was supposedly washing dishes, but really wandering over to him every time an intriguing phrase or story caught my ear. Because I’ll tell you what: That thing was shocking.

When I’d thought of the Dust Bowl before, I’d simply thought of families escaping drought and poverty. I had no concept of immense walls of black dust racing across the plains, swallowing everything and everyone in their paths. I knew nothing of the buckets of dust that women would sweep from the insides of their homes, of how the dust enveloped people so completely that they were unable to see their hands in front of their faces, of how they’d grow ill (and many would die) from having their lungs coated with the stuff.

The documentary showed elderly people telling their stories of that horrible time and I thought to myself: These experiences are part of those people’s heritage. These must be the stories passed down to the people living in those places today. And I know nothing of them.

I know nothing of what it’s like to live in the west, on the plains, with farmland stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. I don’t know how it feels to be held captive by the weather and her whims. I don’t know what it’s like to be a descendant of pioneers, to have stubborn resilience for a heritage.

Neither do I know what it’s like to be a child of immigrants or a great-great-grandchild of slaves. I don’t know what it’s like to be from mountains or shore or desert or city. I don’t know how it is to live in a factory town or a coal town or a fishing village, everyone’s livelihood depending on a tired, waning industry. I am out of my element visiting my husband’s family in the Midwest. I have felt similarly foreign in New England and the Deep South.

All I know – all I really know – is my corner of this land, my way of living.

So when I huff and puff and heave my chest in maddening wonder at Donald Trump’s ascendancy – when I bark an “I don’t understand these people!” – I’m right. I really don’t understand them. I have not lived their experiences. I have not shared their struggles. I have not felt their frustrations.

This is me coming to terms with that.

This is not me saying I think Donald Trump is an acceptable choice for the presidency. I continue to find him shameful in action and in word. I continue to disagree with those who support him. But I’m trying to recognize my own limitations in imagining the millions of individual histories that lead to his rise.

Because the next time I feel like grabbing Joe Trump Supporter by his shoulders and shaking him out of his dangerous delusion, I want to bestow some mercy instead.

There is so much we don’t understand about each other.

And if this election cycle is teaching us anything, maybe that should be it.

These Walls - Strangers in Our Own Land

7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 10)

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

Maybe I should call this “7QT: Uncomfortable Revelations Edition.” Or how about “7QT: Grumbling Introspection Edition”? Or maybe I shouldn’t classify it as a Quick Takes anyway, because it’s anything but quick. (And by the way, I’m still embracing the Friday in the title, because even though I’m posting on Saturday, 90% of the post was written Friday. So it totally counts.)

Whatever you want to call it (or not call it), this week’s 7QT is a departure from my usual peppy jumble of household goings-on and NPR recommendations. I’m simply not feeling them this week. That said, to perk up this otherwise serious post a bit, I’m throwing in some wholly unrelated, happy pictures from the week. So if you’re not in the mood for discomfort and grumbling, just take a quick glance at the cute kids and move on to greener blog pastures.

— 1 —

First, the set-up: Wednesday evening I came home from a long, tiring day out with the boys and I wanted to just sit still for a few minutes in front of my computer. I was hoping that a few of my favorite bloggers had posted something new so I’d have fresh material to read. But when I discovered that a bunch of them had, was I happy? Nope. Not a bit. All I could think was: “Look at all those bloggers posting new material. They’re busier than I am, they have more kids than I do, and they were able to get something posted mid-week. Why couldn’t I?” Mope, mope, whine.

Nevermind that I had just spent 7.5 hours at the county fair with two toddlers. That I had risen and left the house a good two hours earlier than usual. That I’d wrangled my boys into (mostly) quiet behavior for hours while we (er, I) watched my cousins show their pigs. That for the second time that week, I’d caught my younger son’s vomit in my hands because on-the-fly fair eating (that is, not bothering to cut everything up into teeny tiny bits) doesn’t agree with him. That by the time we came home, we were sweaty, sticky, thirsty, dusty, muddy, and (dare I say it?) smelling of manure. And that – despite or because of it all – we’d had a great day together.

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I was coming off all that busyness and stress and fun, and I allowed myself to be plunged into the doldrums because bloggers I like had actually, you know, blogged. Because people I admired were doing something I admired. Because it wasn’t me.

Enter: Julie’s latest round of introspection. (They come frequently.) Between my observation of the aforementioned situation and the content of a few of the blog posts that I (reluctantly) read that evening, I began to think in earnest about how this (still new to me) blogging thing is affecting my mood, outlook, etc. Grumbling and thinking about it all in the most haphazard of fashions, I had the following uncomfortable revelations:

— 2 —

My old, familiar insecurities live on in my blogging, just as they do in the rest of my life.

Surprising, isn’t it? I don’t know why I hadn’t expected this. I guess I thought of starting the blog as turning a new page – a bright, shiny, open-horizon kind of page. Just like I once thought that becoming a stay-at-home-mother would cause me to shed my old work-related hang-ups. But of course, we are who we are. We have backgrounds and inclinations and personalities that affect how we act and how we interpret what happens around us. They don’t go away when we take on something new.

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To touch on a few of my insecurities (because they should add meaning to the rest of this post), let me just admit the following:

I often feel inadequate, particularly when it comes to matters of the mind. I compare myself to those whom I admire and I tend to feel like no matter how hard I try, I’ll never fit in with the truly intelligent and articulate. Or the holy.

I am unhappy with my appearance, especially insofar as it relates to my weight. This unhappiness is not a reaction to my age or to having borne children, nor is it simply some perception thing. I have been actually, technically, officially overweight for much of the past 20 years.

If it seems to me that someone easily masters those things which I find particularly challenging (see above), I’m likely to be jealous of them. I work on this one, I really do. But it lurks.

These are really unique insecurities, aren’t they? I mean, nobody else has feelings of inadequacy or jealousy or unhappiness with their appearance, right?

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— 3 —

People don’t simply have different tastes, they react with astounding difference to the same innocently-conceived material, based on their own struggles and hang-ups.

Let me point you to the following three blog posts:

Pretty, Gritty, Real: How to Read Blogs, by Simcha Fisher

Glimpses of Momentary Victory, by Hallie Lord

5 Favs (Fav # 5), by Jenny Uebbing

I feel like this is like a Russian doll version of blog suggestions: Hallie’s post is a focus of Simcha’s post, which is a focus of Jenny’s post. (And if you’re going to read only one, go with Simcha’s, which is the most thorough.) The moral that I took away from reading all three is something like this: People write blogs for different reasons; they read blogs for different reasons. Something that appeals to one person may agitate another. As a reader, you should know yourself and avoid the blogs that make you “want to punch somebody” as Simcha and Jenny put it. As a blogger – not that you should sweat the divergence in tastes too much – you should be thoughtful about how you present your life in your writing, because even innocent stories/remarks have the potential to cause pain for your readers.

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As far as taste is concerned, I like a pretty decent variety of Catholic mommy blogs. I like a few of the “gritty” ones, which share stories of messes and meltdowns and parental failures. They make me laugh and take myself a little less seriously. I like a few of the sentimental, pretty blogs, which cause me to daydream of loveliness and which inspire me to try harder to make the home and traditions I want my boys to grow up with. I love the blogs that jump into deeper subjects and challenge me to adjust my thinking and to live more fully/thoughtfully/prayerfully/generously, etc.

The only classification of mommy blog that I avoid entirely is the fashion blog. Because if I’m not feeling great about my weight, why would I want to look at pretty clothes and the prettier women wearing them? So on this count, I plan to keep on taking Simcha’s advice:

You can just stop reading, you know.  Or just read something else.  It’s in your control.

Take a good look at what happens to your state of mind if you check out this blog or that website or so-and-so’s Facebook or Twitter or Instagram persona.  Is something having a bad effect on you?  Every time you read a certain author, does it make you feel inadequate or self-righteous, discouraged or contemptuous?  Do you spend the rest of the afternoon criticizing yourself or other people?   Then just skip it — or look elsewhere…

Know thyself!  Take control!  It’s a big world, and one of the few parts you can actually do something about is deciding where to spend your time.

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— 4 —

Though I flatter myself as someone who is easily able to see different sides of a political issue, I’m often unable or unwilling to understand where people are coming from on personal issues that are particularly touchy for me.

With that one (fashion) exception, I don’t exclude whole classes of blogs because of my personal hang-ups. But I consistently come across material – single posts, single phrases, even – from my favorite bloggers that really push my buttons. Here are the primary examples:

Skinny bloggers who complain that they’re not skinny enough.

  • During their pregnancies, they say things like “Look at this picture of my HUGE baby bump! Strangers keep asking if I’m going to pop!” when they look all perky and thin with a lovely, smallish round belly – way smaller at 9 months than mine ever was at 5 months.
  • Post-pregnancy, it’s “I still can’t fit into my pre-baby jeans and s/he is FOUR months old!” Sorry, lady – no sympathy. Your stomach is flatter after three babies than mine was in high school.
  • And of course they always seem to be going on about their diets/exercise regimens and how they’re going to hell-in-a-handbasket because they indulged in one full-sugar soda. Excuse me while I throw a pillow or something.

The following also get to me, albeit in more of an eye-rolling, huffing kind of way:

  • Extreme purgers. I understand needing to declutter because your home is actually cluttered. I do not understand tossing 90% of your possessions because you get some kind of high out of it.
  • Romantic home/natural birthers. For one, I’m just not interested in birth stories. For another, I simply don’t understand some women’s need to have a spiritual/meaningful/transcendent birth “experience”. The only things that matter to me about giving birth are ending up with a healthy baby and mommy at the end. Pump me with drugs; brighten the lights; bring a half-dozen medical students through my room; I don’t care. Just give me a healthy baby and a healthy me.

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I realize that much of that was rather uncharitable. But it was the “before.” Here’s the “after” – the charity that this week’s revelations inspired:

Those skinny ladies? Reading between the lines, I sense that some of them have really struggled with their self-image. Maybe they’ve suffered through actual eating disorders. Maybe they’ve dealt with less severe, but still unsettling issues with food, exercise, and weight. You don’t have to reach a certain number on the scales to feel insecure about how you look.

And me? Even though I’ve been technically, medically overweight for most of the past 20 years and even though my weight always has and still does bother me, I am crazy blessed that I never had any inclination to confuse my appearance with my worth. For that reason, I escaped so many of the issues other women struggled through. I am so. incredibly. grateful.

And pregnancy? Pregnancy makes every woman bigger. No wonder that every woman feels bigger. Whether you wear a size 0 or a size 20, pregnancy changes and grows your body into a form that’s likely to feel uncomfortable and strange. I need to just go ahead and give the pregnant skinnies a break.

The purging thing? Even though part of me (I always say I have a bit of the Great Depression in me) cringes at the idea of throwing away objects that are still useful, that’s me. That’s my preference. Who am I to peg it on someone else? Maybe for some people it’s not so much that purging gives them a high, but rather that being surrounded by things makes them feel low.

The birthing thing? The home birthing trend will always bother me, because I think that every mother has a duty to do what she can to ensure a safe outcome for herself and her child. And removing oneself from the medical care available in a hospital just doesn’t make any sense to me. (Think of how many women in impoverished parts of the world would love to have the luxury of giving birth in a hospital!) And whether we like to think of it or not, women and babies still die in childbirth. We are not immune simply because we live in a wealthy country.

But the rest of it? The high value on having a certain birth “experience”? Why should I care if a woman wants to birth naturally, with low lights and scented oils? Maybe this is how she’s dealing with her fear. Because we might not want to talk about it, but we women are afraid when we head into childbirth: Of the pain. Of the lack of control we have over our own bodies. Of how our lives are about to change. Of something going wrong.

I need to remember these things when I come across blog material that bugs me. I need to be better about giving people the benefit of the doubt. And I need to be better about clicking away from something that bugs me, without taking any annoyed or self-righteous baggage with me when I go.

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They’re in a boat, surrounded by big, blue waves. Can’t you tell?

— 5 —

We often don’t see the hard work behind someone else’s attractive life.

It’s not just the sadness and hardship we miss when we look longingly at something that seems to come easily to another – we miss the hard work, too. In my single days, I saw the love and companionship in my friends’ marriages; I didn’t see the compromise and the tolerance and the putting someone else first. Before I had my own children, I saw the dimples and the curls and the sweet little dresses. I didn’t see the many hours my friends spent on their feet, the crumbs they swept off the floor, the vomit they caught with their bare hands.

Lately, a few kind souls have complimented me on my boys’ good behavior in public. I should be gracious enough to simply smile and say thank-you. But on the harder days, I’ve grumbled out an, “It’s hard work!” Because for all they know, I’ve been blessed with two amazingly compliant little cutie pies. But I’ve actually been blessed with two very real little boys – two very dramatic, energetic, independent little boys. They behave well in public because their father and I have worked our butts off in an untold number of small, tedious ways, teaching them to listen, to respond, to sit still when we need them to.

Recently I had a little “aha” moment when I realized that all those skinny ladies – the ones who are more attractive and fashionable than I think I’m capable of ever being – the ones who complain about their diets and workouts – those ladies work hard to be that way. Exercise is hard work. Eating right is hard work. Doing both while mothering a bunch of little kids is really hard work. I may look at their figures and clothes and see ease, but they most certainly do not.

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— 6 —

My own blog – this little thing that hardly anybody reads – can cause pain even when I’m careful.

Before reading Simcha’s post, this hadn’t really occurred to me. I knew I had to be careful about how I dealt with touchy political subjects. I had a sense that I should present my life as fairly and realistically as possible – beauty and warts. And I knew that I had a fair chance of annoying somebody with any given post. But I didn’t think about how my thoughts, my ideas, my ways of parenting, my home, my marriage, and heck, an untold number of things I can’t even think of right now could actually cause pain to someone who’s been nice enough to stop by to see what I have to say. It’s a weighty thing and there’s not exactly a solution to it. I suppose it’s just something I need to remember.

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— 7 —

As much as I aim to write things that other people will want to read, at the end of the day, I have to write this blog for me.

Yes, there is this and this. Yes, I’d love to attract readers and get some interesting back-and-forth going in the comment sections. Yes, I love hearing that something I’ve written has amused or touched someone. Yes, I’d like to avoid hurting or even annoying people with my writing. But These Walls is really for me. It gives me an avenue to work through my thoughts and ideas and it allows me to feel like I’ve said my piece on subjects that matter to me.

I also write this blog for my boys. Hopefully I’ll live a long life and I’ll always have strong relationships with them both. But you never know. One of my worst fears is that something should happen to prevent me from raising my sons. And almost as bad is the idea that something should happen to estrange us in their adulthood. Unfounded as those fears are, I am comforted by the idea that should they (heaven forbid) ever materialize, the words I write here give me another shot at reaching out to my boys. I like to think they would give my boys a sense of my love for them, of the way I see the world, and the values I hope to impart to them.

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Besides, These Walls has got to be for me (and my boys). There’s no possible way I can please or even interest everyone else. And there’s no way I can wholly avoid annoying/offending/hurting every single person who stops by this blog. All I can ever do is write posts that I like and that I can confidently stand behind. That’s it.

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Now, go on over to Jen’s and check out all the other Quick (much quicker than mine, I’m sure) Takes!

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.