This morning I woke up feeling such compassion and peace that I nearly cried. Why? Because I am blessed to live in America where we are gifted with the absolute splendor of the natural world plus cultural opportunities and freedom.
Sadly, I nearly cried again in the next few hours as I read the words of so many people, people I know and had hoped to form community with, who seem to have vitriol spilling out of them. They are awash in a constant turmoil of religious fervor and what they believe patriotism to exclusively be. And this zeal too often emerges as acerbic ridicule of people or enclaves or cultures, as the bitter criticism that heaps blame upon the other, upon someone who doesn’t think like they do.
I understand the fear and anger, I'm intimately familiar with them, but scathing or derogatory remarks incite vitriol rather than invite tolerance or mercy toward our common need for safety and peace. How do we use our words to respond with healing intention to this acidic oil spill spreading throughout our families and communities? How do we mend the cracked and broken channels of emotion erupting from within that are in direct reaction to the eruptions of threat and violence we see coming toward us?
I know my reflection upon this arises partially out of an audio interview I listened to a while back wherein naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams said at one point that:
“And I was thinking, what is vitriol? What does it mean? And I actually looked it up and it was fascinating because it means an allusion to the corrosive properties of vitriol, which is a strong corrosive acid linked to sulfuric acid, clear, colorless, oily, water-soluble liquid that is produced from sulfur dioxide. Which I thought was interesting, which is the toxic waste that comes from burning coal, used chiefly in the manufacturing of fertilizer, chemicals, drugs, explosives, and petroleum refining. And I thought, well, this is really interesting. Because I think that the conversations that we so often have, and I have to tell you, you know, I don't have to go anywhere but my own family dinner table to find the seed bed of this, both the highest use of language and the lowest use of language with real vitriol, because the people around our dinner table and our extended family do not all think the same. So I have no illusion that we all have this common ground. You know, we have to really fight for that around our household. And we always have.”*
Williams talked about her journey to see the residual effects of the Gulf oil spill (she wrote a piece on that called “The Gulf Between Us”**) and also relates this to the feeling of being caught in the middle because we need something, such as oil, but also are diminished and shamed by what our own desire and need has done to the planet and myriad diverse cultures.
So, how do we create balance? How do we embrace the other while holding our own center point of integrity and faith? How do we return with awareness, repeatedly, to our own culpability in the current chaos and crises? How do we not blame the other…the other person, the other side, the other country? Not easy questions, I know.
One thing I can do, to begin within, is try to carefully watch my words, because they can’t be taken back, and because vitriolic words taint, tarnish, and can even potentially destroy all that we hold dear when they escalate actions toward violence. Thankfully, by grace, words can also heal and hearten the weary or fearful or angry, leading to compassion and the ability to embrace the other and to peaceful resolutions or, as Parker Palmer said recently, to revolutions, in "Five New Year's Revolutions."
And this gives me hope...
Happy New Year and May We Know Peace on Earth.
*Terry Tempest Williams. “TheVitality of the Struggle.” On Being with Krista Tippett. July 19, 2012. < http://www.onbeing.org/program/vitality-struggle/233 >
** Terry Tempest Williams. “The Gulf Between Us.” Orion Magazine. < https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-gulf-between-us/ >