Our Better Angels

Our Better AngelsThere’s so much noise right now. It’s a constant chatter, buzzing, yelling, throwing insults and memes around as if they could be taken back. Something I learned very early in life is that you can’t take certain things back. You can’t unsay. Sure apologies are important and sometimes a good argument can even deepen a relationship if both parties can come through the battle having found common ground or built mutual respect. But there has to be a line. There must be a point of basic human decency in which winning is less important than honoring the humanity in the other person.

It would be easy for you to think I was talking about politics in this piece. I’m not. I’m talking about life and the responsibility we have to teach our children that their words have power. Our kids live in a world in which it is very, very easy for them to grow up their entire lives without being held accountable for their speech, how they put their ideas into the world, and how they honor other people’s experiences. The internet, social media, etc. make it so that if they don’t want to they never have to see the impact of their words. None of us do anymore – BUT – the big difference is that we remember a time when there was accountability and our children do not. This weird new reality is a marker on the timeline of the life of adults who still remember life before Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

I am not a perfect parent by any means. Seriously, not even close. My kids have way more screen time than I am comfortable with. They talk about things that I don’t even understand a little bit. So it’s important to you to know that I am not preaching. I struggle with the complex moral and ethical questions of technology and parenting in the strange new reality of the 21st Century as much as anyone.

Making devices the enemy and going off the grid completely isn’t realistic – at least not for me. The thing I want to teach my kids most of all is to find the middle way to not live in a world of extremes but the find the path that understands that the confusion, pain, and discomfort in the world is just as important as happiness, meaning, and joy. We don’t always get what we want, people don’t always see our point of view, and we have to learn to handle disappointment and frustrations without being toxic, vitriolic, jerk faces who stomp and hurl insults when things don’t go our way.  The internet provides a really interesting – if not exhausting – opportunity to help our kids grapple with the challenges of arguing gracefully, or standing by their beliefs even when others disagree with them – even on the internet (a place where you can ostensibly say whatever you want to whomever you want and have very few repercussions).  There can be basic human decency.

I am always reminded of the very insightful quote, of which I do not know the origin “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” My job as the mom is to instill the tiny voice in them that is a reminder in those moments that no matter how angry they are, no matter how squarely someone else’s words and actions fly in the face of what they know to be correct, real, and of value in this world – there is a right way to say what they want to say. Maybe the right thing means they have to concede in the moment, to agree to disagree, to walk away and live to fight another day with their compassion and decency intact. I am reminded of a very powerful quote originated by Charles Dickens and made famous by Abraham Lincoln “So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, thus their brightness is eclipsed.” Winning at all costs is not the answer. The internet challenges that morality in a very deep way. We can look at is as a threat or we can address it as an opportunity. We can remind our children, and ourselves, of our better angels – of the incredible light and beauty and power that exists in every human on this earth even those with whom we fervently disagree. It is possible to fight magnificently and honorably for the things you believe to be right without forgetting the humanity of your enemy. It’s hard – a lot harder than yelling insults and attacking people’s physical traits, family, or other things that no one has any control over. Let’s talk about ideas. Let’s disagree. Let’s walk away with our heads held high because we didn’t allow our better angels to be eclipsed.

In the end, I don’t need for my children to believe what I believe or be a mouthpiece for me. What I want for them is to know themselves and understand their own values in the midst of all of the noise and the external influences enough to find love and forgiveness in those moments. When you become a parent you have no idea what you are signing up for. It can become so incredibly overwhelming at times that it would almost be easier to take your kids and go live in a hole, but the world needs them to know how to navigate it and we have to find a way to teach them these things that we are only just coming to learn.

I am genuinely interested in hearing how you talk to your kids about respectfully disagreeing, honoring other’s right to their beliefs, and listening to the voice that tells them how to react to conflict. Let’s share our ideas and strategies so that we as parents can become better equipped to face these challenges together.

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Erin Mahone
Erin Mahone is the Director of Cultural Arts and Jewish Education at the Weinstein JCC. She has worked for nearly a decade, throughout RVA, providing access to the arts and creative expression for people of all ages and abilities. Erin is also the creator and Chief Oversharer at It Runs in the Family, a one-woman show website containing collective story series with the mission of reducing the stigma of mental illness and highlighting the power of saying the truth out loud. Erin lives in Midlothian with her amazing husband, 3 delicious kiddos, and a fur baby named Kismet.