This comes from Stephanie Phillips:
Weekday, early morning. I hoist my two-year-old son into his booster seat, scatter some Cheerios over his tray, flip on the Today show. As I wait for the coffee to brew, I notice that the lead news story concerns Justin Bieber’s latest run-in with the law. The camera pans across a sea of teenage girls holding up signs of support as Justin is escorted out of prison.
But the images stay with me, and over the next week, I watch more of them pile up: Bieber gets into more trouble. Richard Sherman abrogates his ability to be articulate in favor of spitfire trash-talking. Zach Braff tweets a picture of himself seated next to Mitt Romney on a plane, noting how surprised he is that someone can disagree with him and still be “a cool dude.”
I am shocked by how obsessed our culture has become with the two-dimensional. Time has softened me: I’m finding it more and more difficult to dust off my old pitchfork these days and write people off. My politics, my theology, my ire—they’ve all become more tempered over the years. There’s something about marriage, and parenting, and…well, just plain growing up that makes a person less willing to paint the world black and white. This is the work of grace, I am convinced: this refusal to measure myself by how many rules I’ve kept, or castigate myself for how many I’ve broken, or shut someone out because they voted for the Other Guy for President.
But I’ve got my share of embarrassing confessions; I still find it way too easy to label people as “Them” or “Us.” Even as adults, we have myriad opportunities to do this. As a mom, I’m inundated by choices of where to pitch my own opinion tent: stay-at-home vs. working; breast-feeding vs. formula; co-sleeping vs. crib. We loving taking “options” and turning them into “teams”, and difference of opinion is all too often the same occasion to demonize. Or opportunity to lionize, as we are decidedly a hero-worshiping culture. When athletes or celebrities or neighbors fall from grace, we clutch our collective pearls at the shock of it all, whispering to each other, “But he was such a nice boy!” Or, “Their marriage seemed perfect!”
Meanwhile, our children stand outside a prison and scream as a nineteen-year-old criminal millionaire waves from atop an SUV.
We are all only too willing to make allowances for the representative of our team one day, on the hate-wagon towards the opposition the next. Paula Deen or Melissa Harris-Perry; Duck Dynasty or Alec Baldwin; Woody Allen (allegedly) or Jerry Sandusky: how can similar look so different?
Our preoccupation with dividing people into “good” or “bad,” riding a pendulum that swings between vilification and deification, fits into the constructs of fairy tales and Disney narratives. When we’ve aged that preoccupation into adulthood, it is revealed as an unwillingness to deal with complexity and mystery. We prefer squelching the uncertainty right out of life and people, and in so doing, propping up ourselves with the good guys.
This strategy is so much easier than dealing with the fact that people will always reveal themselves to be less or more than we’ve made them out to be. It’s so much simpler than navigating the minefields of relationship, of experimenting with the scariness of vulnerability, of flirting with the ups and downs of intimacy. We would rather relegate a person to a category than do the hard work of knowing them. I can remember how an ex-boyfriend lost any nuance of character when I used his face as motivation for a years’ worth of kickboxing. And revenge fantasies? They’ve lengthened many a run for me. Just the other day, my sister and I laughed over my imaginary yelling match with a fallen-from-grace reality star for forty blocks when I lived in New York. I’m not sure it occurred long enough ago to be that funny.
It’s notable that one of last year’s wisest lines of dialogue came from a (former?) terrorist on Homeland, when Javadi told Carrie, “I think you of all people would understand that no one is just one thing.”
It’s more than just poor form or bad manners; our hero-worshiping and name-calling is actually a grievous offense against grace. It precludes the real story for which each of us has been delivered. If we’ve already arrived, why would we need grace? And if we’re beyond it, how can we ever be redeemed? Life is an exodus through the wilderness of redemption, and my own path has gone through some shady territory. By the world’s standards, I have earned the right to be written off. But here I sit, in a marriage, with a child, both of which remind me that grace always has the final word—not my net worth or criminal offenses. Indeed, it is marriage, parenting, friendship—relationship—which have convinced me, daily, that the work of grace is a willingness to constantly remain within the tension of unrealized potential.
And we are not meant to be the final arbiters for anyone else when it comes to that potential.