Chapter 6 of Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti is on “Dialogue and Friendship in Society.” It’s 10-11 pages, and while Chapter 2’s meditation on The Good Samaritan is the real heart of this work, for just a snapshot of what this pope is about, this short chapter is a good Cliff’s Notes. (For those who remember what those were.)
Francis assesses what’s wrong with our current culture of media- (and social media-) driven yelling and offers an alternative. He addresses how dialogue, encounter and consensus needn’t yield to relativism but can instead boil down the deeply essential truths we can all agree to in a pluralistic society. He talks about a culture of encounter, and the joy of encountering the other, and the necessity and power of kindness. And he does it beautifully, even in an English translation from his native Spanish.
But one word really hung me up this week. If.
Francis opens by ticking off the elements within dialogue: “Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (198). Later, he says “The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset [of divisiveness] and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest. God willing, such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society” (202).
But in the opening paragraph, he says, almost as a throwaway line, “If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue” (198). If.
As excellent as the rest of the chapter (and the encyclical as a whole) is, that one word is derailing me right now, because it inadvertently raises a question about which I am not confident of the answer. Do we? Do we “want to encounter and help one another”?
There has been a chorus repeated over the last week+ since the election of people calling for graciousness. For “stay classy.” For “don’t gloat; don’t whine.” For kindness. For reconciliation, even, and reunification. At almost every turn, I’ve seen responses to that chorus that boil down to (excuse my language) “Screw that!” Usually, it’s accompanied by an example of how some people on “the other side” have been demonstrably gloating, unkind, not classy. They are real examples, as far as I can tell, and they are almost always enraging. They deserve to get back in kind, your gut says. Paybacks are hell, as it were.
The thing is, paybacks *are* hell, but not how you think. You may think it’s worthwhile to feel the self-righteousness that comes with being vindictive. You can feel warm and fuzzy over the feeling of vengeance when you know your victims of scorn are getting what they deserve.
But the reality is, you are just digging deeper trenches by returning like with like, and eventually, you’ll be in so deep that you won’t be able to see the sun anymore. As with so many impulses led by the reptilian parts of our brains, it feels really, really good up until the point when it decidedly does not. Paybacks are hell, for the recipient, but more so for the giver, because they lead us farther from the light.
We know this, but knowledge isn’t always enough to shape our choices. And when we are responding to hurt, and in some cases not just hurt but a perceived existential threat, we can know the bit about “love your enemies,” but it’s hard not to choose revenge instead.
If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. But do we? Is that what enough of us want?
I am not at all sure enough of us do, and I am not sure how we get to a place where that is possible in this deeply divided time. What I can hope for is that some of Francis’ “heroes of the future” are already on the job.
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