My 2½-year-old and I went to dinner with a friend recently.
On the way home, I turned the wrong way. His perceptive ears heard me say, “Oops! That was the wrong way,” and then I heard his copycat voice from the back seat saying, “Wrong way, Mama. Wrong way.”
I laughed to myself knowing this phrase would now enter his ever-expanding vocabulary.
I’ve read and listened to people on all sides of the issue of separating families at the border.
I have held my tongue and stopped my fingers from typing responses challenging myself to the discipline of silence and solitude.
Instead of judging the responses people have made that “those people” deserve to be separated from their children or even the denial that families are being separated at the border, I have tried to listen to the subtext of these remarks.
And what I have heard is loneliness and separation.
One of the basic human desires is to be in community: to belong, to be needed and to be loved.
We, as a country, have divided ourselves along party lines fiercely attacking and defending our camps against the “other side.”
We are constantly trying to prove why our side is better or right or good while making sure we don’t allow anyone in our camp who disagrees with us in any way.
This type of defensiveness keeps us constantly in a survival mindset. We are always on edge.
Experts in the mental health profession explain that being in survival mode for extended periods of time blocks our emotions, especially compassion and empathy. In other words, we can’t feel. We are numb.
This resulting numbness means our minds, bodies and, indeed, our spirits shut down from taking in information about the hurt and pain surrounding us.
We can’t hear the cries of the children taken from their parents. We can’t feel the loss of the victims of mass shootings.
We can’t feel the fear of blue collar workers who are afraid of losing their jobs and not being able to provide for their families. We can’t see the way our vicious attacks against people from “the other side” are continuing to expand the great divide that exists in our country.
Our only concern is ourselves. This is true not only for people who believe children should be separated from their families, but also for people who don’t believe children should be separated from their families.
“Wrong way, Mama.” I keep hearing this refrain in my heart and mind and wondering if perhaps my son’s statement is something we all need to hear.
We cannot continue to relate to each other in the same manner as we have. We cannot continue to exist in survival mode defending and attacking.
We must come together as a community of people living in a country together. We must figure out how to live and work and communicate with people who have different values, beliefs and views than we do in a way that is respectful, collaborative and ultimately healing.
The chaos of our inability to communicate across party lines is destroying our lives and, indeed, our country.
As our 2½-year-old repeated my own words, I responded, “Yes, Mama went the wrong way, but now we are turned around and headed the right way.”
Perhaps this is a lesson for all of us. Perhaps it’s time to admit that we have been a part of the miscommunication and dehumanization of people who don’t agree with us.
Perhaps it is time to turn around and head the other way toward compassion, empathy and community.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing, monthly column series, “From the Pews,” in which Harrelson will discuss local church ministry trends and challenges. Previous articles in the series are available here.
Merianna Harrelson is pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina, editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing, and an EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board member.