As I walked the dog yesterday following a particularly ill-advised exchange on Facebook regarding a vitriolic “anti-vaxxers” blog post, I struggled to tease out the strings of what bothers me so much about these kinds of interactions.  The same gut-burning, chest-tightening, jaw-clenching feelings came over me yesterday that I get when I encounter anti-choice protestors or read stories about the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful acts against homosexuals. It seemed to me that there was some wisdom in my body that wasn’t making it through to my brain.

I am certainly bothered by the Us vs. Them mentality – the assumption that there are only two sides to these issues and the disregard that there might be a shared goal.  No, neither pro-life nor pro-choice activists think killing babies is okay. Yes, both think that it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions. Neither folks who vaccinate their children nor those who choose not to (or slow down the regimen or ask question after question before deciding) want horrible diseases to take over mankind. Yes, we all want healthy, thriving children.  And regardless of your sexual preference, each of us wants to live a meaningful, happy life shared with people we love.

But beyond that, I honestly think that there is a bigger issue. At least in these three instances, one group recognizes the need for individual allowances within the whole and supports a diverse population of choices and the other believes they are Right and everyone should just do what they say.  It is truly pro-choice versus anti-choice and the pro-choice contingent has a much more accepting, understanding, dare I say compassionate view of humanity. It is inclusive.

Being pro-choice (whether in relation to vaccinations, reproductive rights, homosexuality, etc.) means that I am floating in a vast sea of unknowing. It is scary sometimes and floating does not equal passivity. I must still often tread water to keep from drowning and often things come up from the deep to bite me in the ass.  It is difficult to find information and validate it and from time to time I have to seek out other people who are floating for support.  Residing in the vast sea of unknowing means that I have given up absolutes, I forego imposing my will on others, I admit that I don’t know what it’s like to be you.

The folks who have already decided – those who are certain they are Right – stand on the beach, firm in their own footsteps and throw rocks at those of us floating in the sea. Some of them might dip a toe in the water from time to time (“I get how you might think it’s okay to ____________, but if you listen to me you’ll see why I’m Right”) but without fully giving over to the idea that maybe there is more they can’t comprehend, their feet stay firmly on the ground. Others never even venture close to the water’s edge, sunk deep into the sand and their convictions that Homosexuality is Wrong or People Who Don’t Vaccinate are All Idiots or Being Pro-Choice Means You’re a Baby Killer and just keep throwing shit and yelling.

But compassion means that my views have to include these folks, too.  As I walked, I puzzled on the idea of some sort of Venn diagram that might illustrate it, but there isn’t one, because that would imply mutual acceptance or overlap of some kind.  In my ocean of “I don’t know all that I can and I accept that others know differently than me and that’s okay,” I am okay with someone who chooses not to abort an unintended pregnancy or vaccinates their kids on the doctor’s schedule or exhibits their heterosexual tendencies, because I accept the notion of choice and I know that what is right (without a capital R) for me is not necessarily right for another. So instead of a Venn diagram, my vast sea of unknowing encompasses everyone’s choice including those folks on the beach. The beach-dwellers’ circle is a little like a puddle of oil sitting atop my circle without accepting it or incorporating it.

In the sea of unknowing there are people who slowly stepped in foot by foot, cautiously examining what it might be like to float out there and truly not know; folks who were willing to entertain the idea that there are circumstances about which they know nothing that are part of the lives of other human beings every day. There are also those who were thrust into the water by a traumatic event – instantly faced with a horrible choice or a life event so jarring that it made them examine everything they thought they knew before. Others may have been born into it.  Don’t be fooled, we are all afraid. There is something about not knowing that runs counter to the way we think and many of us continue to search for knowledge and investigate so that we are not consumed. The thing about lying back in the water and relaxing into the idea that there are things I cannot know is that I have no need to prove anything to anyone else. There are some questions for which there isn’t a Universal Answer that applies to everyone and if we can’t all share in the Right Answer, then at least we can share in the pursuit of a common goal, a shared humanity.

The beautiful thing about seeing these issues as diverse and complex is that it means we can progress. If there were only pro- and anti- camps (pro-vax/anti-vax, pro-abortion/anti-abortion, pro-homosexuality/anti-homosexuality), it would be like flipping a coin over and over again. There is no forward movement, no growth, only switching back and forth between views. If the definition of one group requires the certain annihilation of the other, there is no ground from which to work. The recognition that there are really not two distinct “sides” to any of these arguments gives us the opportunity to define a shared goal and work toward it.  Not that I think that will happen anytime soon, because it is far too tempting to stand on the beach with the sand beneath your feet and believe that you Know. When you can define the threat as something “out there,” all you have to do to eliminate it is walk away and ignore it or stand on the shore and throw rocks at it. When you don’t have to take the uncomfortable step forward and question your own knowing, why would you? I understand. But standing in the water doesn’t mean you’ve given up what you believe, it just means you’re willing to accept that not everyone sees the same horizon you do.

But here’s the thing. Our knowledge of anything is never complete. If it were, Pluto would still be considered a planet and doctors would still be writing prescriptions for Thalidomide for pregnant women with morning sickness.  But we learned. We evolved. We questioned.

Once I fully succumbed to the pull of the deep unknowing, I couldn’t imagine going back to shore. The richness and diversity of this place is amazing and I learn something new every moment. Being willing to suspend Knowing has allowed me to forge connections with brilliant, passionate, articulate people who agree that there is more to our lives than Black and White, Right and Wrong. And floating in this sea surrounded by others who will not judge my ideas and experiences because they, too, have accepted the unknowing feels safer than standing on that slowly shifting sand throwing rocks out at the sea.

My (online) world is shrinking. I am doing my best to be open-minded and deliberate about it because I don’t want to turn into some old curmudgeon who only listens to and reads things that reflect my point of view.  That said, I’m tired. I’m sick of seeing things on my Facebook feed that are designed to create controversy in order to drive ‘clicks.’ If I never see one more link to an article about “anti-vaxxers” or “mommy wars” about breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, I might live a little longer. All of these blog posts and articles that would have us believe that important, complicated issues are black and white and we need to PICK A SIDE, ALREADY make me tired.

I occasionally forget what is good for me and enter into the fray, generally to point out that there are few issues that are truly black and white and degenerating into (or starting out with) name-calling doesn’t move the conversation along at all. And then I get called a “libtard” and my motives and intelligence get called into question and I get a stomach ache and have to take the dog for a long walk to remind myself not to do that again.

Lately, my recourse has been to take note of those organizations who repeatedly highlight contentious issues and pretend that they are doing so to “create conversation” and ‘unlike’ them on Facebook.  I simply am not willing to support groups who are only interested in causing mayhem in the pursuit of clicks and, thus, advertising dollars, even if I agree with much of the rest of their content.  (ThinkProgress, I’m talking about you.) While this is nothing new in the world of social media, it either seems as though it has kicked into high gear of late, or I have finally hit my tipping point.  I am so much more interested in thoughtful, respectful, educated exchanges with people who are genuinely willing to listen to others and perhaps take a mental walk in someone else’s shoes. Call it compassion. Call it open-mindedness. Call it what you want, but I’m building some boundaries around my world to keep out the folks who are more driven by being Right than they are by being Human.

Elizabeth highlighted this op-ed on her Facebook page on Sunday and, as it is fairly short, I urge you to go read it before you continue reading this post.  It makes me sad that the author is so spot-on as he calls out the responses of so many of his readers.  I agree with him that there is a lack of compassion in general in this country (and maybe in others – I don’t honestly know because I’m only here), but more specifically online. I think that it is much easier to assert our opinions in sound bite form with respect to challenging issues when they are stereotypical or beside the point.  I can cite several examples of nasty comments I’ve seen upon reading a news article or blog post that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serve only to attack either the writer or one of the main people in the story for superficial, usually physical, attributes or knee-jerk reactions to one minor point of the story.

We are all so conditioned to have an opinion and share it that we rarely stop to consider nuances and details of a story that may have eluded us. We are conditioned to talk instead of listen, and make up our minds but not change them.  Compassion requires a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least acknowledge that their shoes are different from yours in a fundamental way. Compassion requires curiosity about the circumstances of another person’s life and it implores us to suspend (or altogether eliminate) judgment. In order to be compassionate, we have to take the time to build a bridge from the parts of us that are most human to the parts of others that are most human and that takes courage.

I struggle most with compassion when I am trying the hardest to keep fear at bay. When I see a parent grieving for their child, my mind races to find all of the reasons why that could never happen to me and often, that manifests itself as judgment. If that mom/dad hadn’t made the choice to ______________, this wouldn’t have happened. The more I convince myself that someone else is Wrong and my decisions are Right, the easier it is to feel safe, to believe that whatever horrible thing this person is suffering won’t visit itself on me and my loved ones.  Finding my way to compassion means that I have to step off of that righteous path and into the soft muck on the side of the trail, facing my fears and acknowledging that I am just as human as anyone else and I can’t know the details of someone else’s story. It requires me to open up and let fear and sadness move through me, to take up the mantle of shared humanity and responsibility and bear the weight of another person’s struggle along with them. It asks me to sit firmly in the knowledge that we are not ‘other,’ we are not separate, we all deserve love and acceptance and when we give it freely to one another we are stronger and happier for it.

It takes time and energy to be compassionate, much more time than is required to dash off a pithy, snarky remark about someone’s weight or tattoos or sexual proclivities. We have to be willing to consider, to listen, to really pay attention, and many of us don’t want to do that. We also have to be willing to forego the opportunity to see our own opinions in print or hear our own voices. One draw of the internet is that it allows us to all have our say. Our words can reach audiences we could never have dreamed of before and we don’t have to write an entire op-ed or letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper. But if “our say” is a twitter-length rant on how inferior someone else is or how they deserved whatever they got, it showcases our inability to understand the deeper connections and the vital points of any story.  Last week in our region an elementary teacher was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. The photograph of the teacher that ran on the news outlet’s Facebook page was of a mixed-race woman with facial hair. I cringed as I saw it, knowing what most of the comments would be like. Sure enough, there were hundreds of people questioning her gender, saying that of course she was a “child molester” given her physical appearance, and suggesting hateful things ought to happen to her, not because of her crime, but “because she needs to shave.” There were a few token comments from people outraged that the conversation was about her appearance instead of her crime, and a couple explaining the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which causes some women to grow facial hair, but the vast majority were hateful, even violent comments based solely on the photograph the media ran.

I asked Lola what compassion means to her and if she thought it was something that can be taught. She wasn’t very articulate about her definition of it, but she did say that she doesn’t think you can teach compassion. She said, “I think it’s individual for everyone. They need to come to it on their own and they can’t do it all the time. But you can put people in situations where they might think about it more – like volunteering at a homeless shelter or something – and then they might come to it faster on their own.”

I hope she’s right, or maybe I don’t. I’d like to think that compassion is something we can teach, but even if we can only plant the seeds and hope it spreads, that’s at least something I’m willing to put a lot of time and effort into, at least in my own household.

According to some, I “rescued” my 14-year old today and I shouldn’t have.  Ironically, one of the first things I saw on my Facebook feed this morning was an essay in Brain, Child that spoke to this exact issue and would probably have placed me squarely in the camp of “helicopter parent.”

I beg to differ.

As a child, I was fully indoctrinated into the world of toughlove. The world of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “learn to succeed on your own.” And, largely, I benefited from those lessons – the teachers who let me puzzle through challenging lessons without giving me answers, my dad refusing to bail me out when I got myself into debt because I didn’t think ahead, other adults in my life who showed me they believed in my abilities by not stepping in to forewarn me of some misstep I was about to take.  But there were times when I would have done much better knowing that I had support, times when I believed that independence was tantamount to connection and that being able to take care of myself was more important than asking for help. It would have served me very well to know how to even gauge my own thresholds, to know how to assess when I was out of my depth and needed a lifeline. Instead, the message I internalized was that I needed to be fully self-sufficient.

One morning a few months ago, I stepped in to the quiet halls of the school my daughters attend.  The students were all in classrooms, the sunlight streaming through the windows and bouncing off the shiny locker doors. The receptionist sat at his computer typing away with the dean of staff hovering behind his shoulder. They both looked up in surprise as I tugged on the front door, needing to be buzzed in.

“Lola left this on the printer this morning,” I waved a sheet of paper in the air in explanation. The dean rolled her eyes and shook her head at me.  She would have preferred that I let Lola twist in the wind, that she learn a difficult lesson about remembering her own homework.  I felt a wave of shame and defensiveness begin to rise up in my belly but I blocked the words before they sputtered out of my mouth. I turned to the receptionist, kindly asked him to hand the paper to Lola at the next break between classes, thanked them both, and left.

Since that day, I have shown up at the school maybe once or twice to drop off basketball shoes or a hastily-prepared lunch for one of my girls. I will defend those decisions unequivocally and here is why.

As an adult, I cannot claim that I never forget anything at home that I ought to have had with me, despite the toughlove lessons I received as a child.  As an adult, I have the ability to return home in my car to get the things I forgot or use my debit card to purchase my lunch on the fly.  My children do not have that option available to them.  On more than one occasion, Bubba has called me from a business trip to plead that I stop by the dry cleaners to pick up his suit because he totally forgot to do it before he left and he will need it as soon as he returns home. Should I refuse him this kindness in an effort to “teach him a lesson?” I think not. And I won’t do that to my children, either.  I refuse to let Lola go hungry at lunch in order to impart some false sense of wisdom.  Instead, I will offer them the same courtesy I hope my loved ones would extend to me in my time of need.

There are obvious exceptions, and if there is a pattern of behavior that I think needs to be dealt with, I will of course address that in a different way, but it makes me crazy to envision a world in which my daughters are taught that they are the only ones responsible for every detail of their lives.  If that were true, we would all live in a house where we only did our own dishes and nobody else’s and we wouldn’t be able to count on each other to remind us of important events when our brains (and calendars) are overloaded.

Some of the examples of enabling the author called out in her essay felt to me as though they were oversimplified in the making of her point.  There is a difference between ‘rescuing’ our children and teaching them life lessons that will serve them well one day.  I long ago stopped doing all of my girls’ laundry for them, but if Eve has hours of homework to do and her basketball uniform needs a 12-hour turnaround, I’ll offer to help out if I have time. I don’t pay the girls’ library fines if their books are overdue, but when I realized that it was getting to be a problem, I offered to help them brainstorm ways to make it easier to find and return books they had checked out.  Instead of letting them believe that there are only two solutions (Mom does it or I do it), I hope I can teach them that we are all in this together and that makes it a better world for everyone.  Yes, they are ultimately responsible for their own stuff and their choices and behaviors, but there are times where you just mess up and other times when you can’t solve the problem all alone.  I know that the only thing stopping Eve from zipping home to get her own running shoes and socks today at lunchtime was the fact that she isn’t old enough to drive. Given that we live five minutes from school, I have absolutely no problem heading down there to drop them off because I think the lesson here is that I’m willing to help her out when I can. I would rather raise my kids to be compassionate team-players than super-responsible, hyper-independent individuals who refuse to help someone find their misplaced keys because “it isn’t my problem.” I would rather raise them to know that it’s okay to be human and ask other people for help occasionally, that getting assistance doesn’t lead to dependence and lethargy and laziness.  Most of my early adult life was spent pushing people away, feigning that I was capable of handling anything that presented itself. While I felt a great deal of pride in my accomplishments, I was also scared of the next thing that might come along that I might NOT be able to deal with and I was pretty damn lonely.  It feels a lot better to know that someone has my back and if my kids learn that I’m there for them when they can’t do for themselves, I will be able to sleep soundly at night, whether or not you label me a “helicopter mom.”

Photo from Seahawks.com, Rod Mar

The Pacific Northwest is my home and there are dozens of reasons I love living here. But thanks to last night’s Superbowl victory by the Seattle Seahawks, it just got a little more exciting.

I grew up with sports – football chief among them.  The Miami Dolphins won the Superbowl the same year I was born (and, unfortunately, haven’t won another one since) and even though I grew up on the West Coast, I spent my youth cheering for Bob Griese and team. My dad patiently taught me about holding calls and 2-point conversions and there were always two or three Nerf footballs lying around our yard.  There were other sports we loved, to be sure, but following football was as much part of our lives as going to church on Sunday, and it was something we did as a family.

In high school I dated the quarterback for a while and froze my butt off in the stands every Friday night cheering on our team. I loved the rush of sitting with my friends, doing the wave, and rising as one entity, screaming with joy when one of our boys hit the end zone.

I watched helplessly in college as one of my friends was hit so hard he ended up paralyzed and suffered bleeding in his brain. He never recovered and spent the next few years of his life in a nursing home where he ultimately died of the brain injury. The community of students and staff rallied closely around his family and Eric’s room was rarely empty for the remainder of his days.

For the past few weeks our town has been a frenzy of excitement and I have been reminded of the power of community. A few years ago, the team and its supporters began using the phrase “12th man.” The idea picked up steam and while it may not have originally been intended, the fans of this team have become an integral part of its success. 12 man flags fly all over town and at the end of every victory, both the coach and players thank the fans. Beyond giving the team a home field advantage by generating so much noise the opposing team can’t hear each other, the fans have folded the coach and players into the life of the town so deeply that they have become intertwined. The players appear in local hospitals and schools, and the owner has a rich history in Seattle as well.

There is something really amazing about feeling as though you are truly a part of your team. However absurd it sounds, the sentiment of ownership, of pride, is palpable in this town right now. From the young coach who folks thought couldn’t lead an NFL team to victory to the quarterback who was told to stick to baseball to the owner whose major accomplishment prior to buying the Seahawks was helping Bill Gates start one of the most successful technology companies in the world, this team was built on hard work and a dream. (Okay, yes, and a boatload of money, but not the most money in the league by any stretch of the imagination.) I love the fact that prior to this Superbowl, none of the players on this team had a championship ring. Each and every one of these players got their first Superbowl ring last night. Each and every one of them appears to have taken Coach Carroll’s philosophy of playing to heart: that every minute of every game is as important as another. I would venture to guess that many of the fans are doing the same, given the consistent efforts of their team.

I am aware of the many controversies involved with professional sports and struggle with many of them. Are players being exploited by the league when they are asked to hit and take hits that are increasingly dangerous? Is the game too violent? Is it necessary to pay these players such exorbitant sums of money? Why is the NFL considered a non-profit organization and, thus, exempt from paying taxes while raking in obscene amounts of money? But I won’t deny the feeling of community and camaraderie that comes from cheering for this team who acknowledges the part their fans play in their success. In his post-game speech in the locker room, after calling out each individual player who made a spectacular play, Carroll asked the team to cheer for, “The 12s – there is something that’s so real, they are so much a part of what we do…” I can’t say that I’m not a little bit thrilled that this group of players who had the dubious honor of being the underdog went on to such a resounding victory, and they did it without nastiness or rubbing their win in anyone’s face. As for the fans, so far Seattle has stayed true to its reputation by not letting this win spark riots and looting all over town. I, for one, am happy to see the ‘Hawks go out on such a high note and I suspect their fans will ride this high for a while. There is something powerful about being swept up in the momentum of a group of people all rooting for the same thing, whether its a political rally or a sporting event or a group of friends watching a movie together all pulling for the heroine. It feels good, especially when your team wins.

I don’t know how the Dalai Lama does it. Except maybe he was never the parent of a teenager. Because when the explosion happens, like a fiery plume from the Deepwater Horizon, up from the depths, burning through water to spray into the sky and rain down, it’s hard to respond with love instead of panic. As the person under fire, I’d like to curl into a ball, tuck my head and limbs underneath me, and slink off to safety. As the parent, I know the thing to do is stay calm, dig deep into the recesses of my brain for parenting strategy, and endure the onslaught as I try to slow it down.

At the end of the talk someone from the audience asked the Dalai Lama, “Why didn’t you fight back against the Chinese?” The Dalai Lama looked down, swung his feet just a bit, then looked back up at us and said with a gentle smile, “Well, war is obsolete, you know ” Then, after a few moments, his face grave, he said, “Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back…but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you.”

My war is inside. Not only because I want to fight back, to dispute each thrust (even those that come out of nowhere – from the left and the right when my focus is straight ahead) with an equally adept parry, but because I am her mother. Because while my own wounds are stinging, I hurt for her, for the wound that is the source of all of this, the one thing she won’t let me see.  The one thing I don’t have an answer to because she keeps it so well hidden.  And because I know fighting back won’t change a thing. My head wants to delve in and examine, understand why she is so upset. My heart knows that the only way to fight fire is with water, the only way to fight hatred and fear is with love.

As the insults and hurtful words rain down, I struggle to stay in my heart. I wish that the sheer volume of my love was enough to spill over and fill her up. I want my boundless affection to swallow her anger and fear, consume it and move on like The Blob, spreading love like so much blue slime, neutralizing the pain. I want her to find the part of her that simply can’t accept my love and touch it, probe it, examine it. I want her to push into it even as it hurts and discover that it holds no sway anymore. I want her to discard it like the decoy it is and turn to me with open arms.

As the fireballs fly, it is increasingly difficult to stay open and radiate love. Every instinct I have pushes me to close down, pull in and fling well-aimed water balloons, or at least put up a shield. Eventually fatigue creeps up and I remember to listen to my heart. No matter how much it hurts, the only way out is love. I’m trusting the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m going on blind faith, here, that if I just refuse to fight back and repeat myself, eventually the message will get through. I love you. I love you. I love you. No matter what.

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.

I am writing this as a parent who is incredibly grateful that the school my girls attend teaches media literacy aggressively and early. Beginning in the 5th grade, the teachers present the students with examples of how we are barraged every day with messages that may or may not represent us, but whose sole aim is to sell us something, even if couched in the guise of “entertainment.”

And so I was not terribly surprised to see the article in this morning’s New York Times regarding the MTV reality series “16 and Pregnant.” (Disclaimer: I have never watched, nor do I anticipate ever watching this show. I cannot speak to the relative merits or pitfalls of it, and I’m more interested in the larger theme of media influence, in any case.) The Nielsen company, responsible for television ratings among other things, released a report suggesting that this show and others like it may have “prevented 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.” Don’t ask me how they did the study. I didn’t delve too deeply in to it, but I suspect some other folks will, given the voices that have been raised in opposition to shows like this since their beginning. The people in that camp believe that these shows glamorize teen motherhood by featuring the teens on television, thus rendering them celebrities, and may convince young girls to go out and get pregnant before they are ready to.  Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not with regards to this particular blog post.  What strikes me is that what both sides have in common is the assertion that television shows, among other media sources, have a strong impact on their audience, so much so that they can influence major life decisions.  With that, I will agree.

Last week on the way home from school, Eve reported that the 8th graders had begun a new unit in their health class involving body image.

“We’ve had two classes on it so far and, man, there’s no way we’re ever gonna get through even fifteen minutes without someone bursting into tears. I mean, even though we know that pictures are Photoshopped and nobody looks like a Barbie doll, some of the girls in my class have such low self-esteem because they think their bodies are all wrong that they can’t stop sobbing.”

I confess to being surprised.  This is a school that has encouraged families to watch the critically acclaimed Miss Representation with their children, a school that has the 7th grade students create their own posters using images from magazines to demonstrate their understanding of media messages and how harmful they can be, a school that embraces and holds up diversity as a source of power. And yet, there are girls who are still so divided in their loyalties to themselves versus someone else’s idea of what they ought to look like that they can’t make it through a class on body image without feeling awful.

Let us not underestimate the power of both the media and the perpetuation of those messages among our youth. Let us continue to talk to our children about what is truly important and worthy. Let us help them to think critically about what they see and hear and decipher which messages are there to lift them up and which ones are there to tear them down and open their wallets.  As Stephen Colbert once said:

“But if girls feel good about themselves, how can we sell them things they don’t need?”