In the Wilderness

If you’ve spent more than 30 seconds on social media, chances are you’ve been asked to pick a side in an issue. Only a few are brave enough to repost this meme. Retweet using this hashtag to show your support. If you’re silent, then you’re not with us. We’re right and they’re wrong! It’s us versus them.

I find myself wondering why no third option is ever allowed.

Parts of my home state of Louisiana were recently ravaged by Hurricane Laura, the strongest storm to hit here in more than 100 years. Making landfall at nearly a category 5, Laura left a path of destruction from the Gulf to Arkansas. My family and I live further inland, and thankfully were spared the brunt of the storm. But, even here, we dealt with downed trees and powerlines, and days without electricity.

As the winds were dying down, power company workers from all over the country descended on our state, many of them at staging areas in northern Louisiana. For two days, thousands of us sat in the dark, waiting for help while utility vehicles lined up by the hundreds in the parking lot of a local arena. Some took to social media to accuse the power company workers of laziness. Look at them just sitting there! They don’t care at all! But, anyone who dared to post any type of criticism or even question the plan to restore power were met with a barrage of attacks. I stand with our linemen! I’d like to see you climb a telephone pole! Repost to show your support for our hardworking linemen.

I didn’t think the linemen were lazy. I did think they weren’t being given clear direction, and that the power company wasn’t as prepared as they should have been given the advance warning of the approaching storm. I was grateful, yet frustrated and questioned the optics of having hundreds of trucks appearing unmoved for 24 hours, as well as the company’s use of canned copy-and-paste responses to customer inquiries on social media. In other words, it wasn’t cut and dry for me. I could empathize with pieces of both sides of the argument.

Let me be clear. On some moral issues, I feel strongly there is no room for compromise. Some things are just cut-and-dry wrong. But, in the vast majority of arguments (especially political), I find I am being forced to choose between two sides when I fully agree with neither. In her book Braving the Wilderness Author Brene Brown calls this refusal to align with one side or the other speaking truth to bullshit.

“One of the biggest sources of bullshit today is the proliferation of “If you’re this then you’re automatically that” and “You’re either with us or you’re against us” politics. These are emotional lines that we hear invoked by everyone from elected officials and lobbyists to movie heroes and villains on a regular basis. They’re effective political moves; however, 95 percent of the time it’s an emotional and passionate rendering of bullshit….These emotional pleas are often not based in facts, and they prey on our fears of not belonging or being seen as wrong or part of the problem. We need to question how the sides are defined. Are these really the only options? If alternatives exist outside of these forced choices (and they almost always do), then the statements are factually wrong.”

Brown goes on to suggest that the only way to remain true to oneself is to reject this false framing of the narrative, even if that puts you in what she calls the wilderness. This is the grey area where you refuse to pick one of only two choices given, where you own your opinion and refuse to let others frame your beliefs. It may not make you popular, but it keeps you authentic to yourself.

If I believed everything I read online, I would think it’s impossible to be the proud daughter of a police officer, and also support Black Lives Matter. It’s isn’t. I do. I have the utmost respect for those who are sworn to protect us, while at the same time realizing that there are some who abuse that oath. Social media trolls call me a “libtard” for vocalizing my support of BLM, even saying I don’t love our country and that I want to strip all police departments of funding. Absolutely ridiculous. I refuse to allow myself to be boxed into a corner and labeled.

Similarly, many would argue that since I grew up in a hunting family, I naturally support the National Rifle Association. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like Brown, I learned to respect firearms, and my family didn’t shoot what it didn’t plan to eat. I support both responsible gun ownership, and common sense gun reform, and completely reject the violent guns-as-toys semi-automatic culture that the gun lobby pushes. Most of my extended family vehemently supports all gun ownership with no exceptions. Many of my friends are just as adamant that all guns should be banned. The two sides leave little room for folks like me. “If I support gun ownership then I support the National Rifle Association?” says Brown.”No way. I’m not buying it.”

Some would say that claiming the middle ground is chickening out. Yet, it takes bravery to step out and make the decisive choice to seek more information, and options other than the ones society gives you. Like Brown, I am choosing to go my own way and call BS on the either/or, right versus wrong, us versus them rhetoric.

The next time you’re pressed to pick a side in a heated exchange, I encourage you not to take the bait. Instead, ask yourself who is framing the argument? What information is being left out? Could the debaters be withholding information in order to persuade you? What other options exist beyond the two being presented? You may find yourself in a wilderness as you ask these probing questions and push against the status quo. But, my friend, you won’t be there alone. As a trail runner, the idea of wilderness doesn’t scare me. Quite the opposite, wilderness gives one the freedom to breathe, think and feel. Forging new paths requires you to trust the unknown, to seek new information from your surroundings, to trust new maps. It’s in the grey area that you grow.

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