Space for a Person-in-Process

I hate Twitter yet I love it enough to use it nearly every day. It’s an odd addiction, sending out truncated thoughts into what can amount to a digital void, but it’s fun and in a way, it’s freeing for the random thoughts that pick at my brain. So I tweet. A lot. The site began as a forum for frivolous short-winded blurbs but has evolved into a spectacular monster capable of carrying the good, the bad, the obscene and the sacred on its back. Twitter posts have become both incidents and events. Some have given cause for termination and others have created job opportunities for those with a large enough following. They’re a way to both disseminate the news and create it by providing the argumentative plot points for the talking heads. All in less than 140 characters. It’s an odd world we live in today.

I have a few hundred Twitter followers, the majority of which I’m certain never see a word I type into the website. I tweet about mostly mundane things like my coffee addiction, my love for the Muppets and snarky gifs from 30 Rock. Sometimes, I retweet liberal-leaning articles and equality-affirming blog posts, but my page is mostly tweets about dinosaurs and television and nachos and faith. The people I follow on the site run the gamut from my college friends to celebrities like Britney Spears and Chris Hemsworth, from authors like Anne Lamott and Rachel Held Evans to political figures like Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth Warren. While I try not to spend my life scrolling through my Twitter feed, I admit I’ve learned a lot about the world and about myself because of information the site has facilitated.

This week, I watched as some Twitter users tore into a woman I follow. This sort of digital mob mentality enjoys an almost daily resurgence when a social/political firebrand says something off-the-cuff or contextually misunderstood. Strangers pounce like tigers, each trying to one-up the last tweet with their brand of wit, snark or headiness and if the offender is a big enough name (cough…Lena Dunham), news programs report about their tweets as well as people’s reactions with headlines that read “Twitter was not happy about [fill in the blank].” Again, it’s an odd world we live in today.

This particular Twitter user routinely advocates for the marginalized and the othered, something I’m also passionate about. She promotes the love of God to all people, even the ones some churches believe are excluded from the grace umbrella, and while she tweets with a fervency I will never master, I enjoy reading what she puts out into the world. The backlash occurred when she tweeted something innocuous – a misread and misunderstood statement – and was lambasted as a racist and told her white privileged feminism was blocking her ability to recognize her embedded biases. People who claim to believe the same things she does turned on her in ways both petty and vicious. She responded by taking in the criticism and tweeting her process of learning along the way. She recognized how her tweet was read and interpreted by some, apologized and moved on. This incident and many others like it have left me asking myself: Where do we go when we are a person-in-process?

A person-in-process, as I define it, is someone who doesn’t have it all figured out. It’s someone who looks a changing world in the face and tries to make sense of what’s new today and what might be new again tomorrow. It’s someone who is intentionally working through the residual thoughts, beliefs, biases and possibly prejudices of their upbringing. Where do those people go to air out their brain so they can allow a new idea, new thought, or new approach inside?

People do use Twitter for that, but if you are going to build a following of forward-thinkers, you have to be prepared to be out-thunk by them. Yes, social media is a place where you can work through your evolving ideals of life and politics and faith, but it’s in no way a safe place. On any given platform, there are millions of users who lay in waiting like a cop at the bottom of a dark hill, ready to get heated and combative and write you a citation for each of your wrongs.

Last week, I saw a clip from the news program 20/20 which investigated camps where gay conversion therapy is conducted in the name of the Lord. This is something I’m familiar with, something that usually makes me roll my eyes because I know how antiquated and asinine it is. After the demise of Exodus Ministries, the largest of the reparative (or conversion) therapy organizations, I discarded the influence of such organizations as a past-tense issue. Exodus was shut down by its leader, Alan Chambers, because of its ineffectiveness, divisiveness and harmfulness to those who tried to change themselves into something they weren’t. But watching this very present-tense video grieved my spirit to such an extent that I posted the snippet on Facebook. I try to shy away from endlessly sharing hyper-political posts, but sometimes, I cannot contain my frustration. This was one such issue and I posted the video link along with this comment:

I have friends who were sent to groups like this. They’re still gay and some of them were even able to find their faith in the ruins of what these pastors did to them. Nothing about these camps is okay or Christ-like in the slightest.

I firmly believe every word of what I wrote and after watching the entire 20/20 special, I believe them even more firmly. Those friends of mine who were sent to gay-conversion groups against their will still bear the emotional and spiritual scars of trying to rewire something that doesn’t need rewiring. At the camps, they were relentlessly told they needed God to fix them by whatever means necessary. Of course, when that fix never materialized inside them, the implication was that they didn’t have enough faith for the follow-through. Now, not only were they deemed dysfunctional as people because of their same-sex attractions but they were also dysfunctional as Christians because they weren’t “allowing” God to “heal” them. Like Quasimodo, they were convinced by the priest they were a monster.

On another end of the spectrum, I have friends who attended such groups of their own volition. It was something they felt they needed to better themselves in the eyes of God. After years of hearing from the pulpit they needed to change, they decided to try but the outcome was the same. Their inability to change was interpreted as a lack of faith, something those groups’ leaders placed on their shoulders like guilt-anvils.

Of my friends who were either subjected against their will or submitted themselves on their own accord, every one of them is still as gay as the day is long. More so, every one of them still bears the scars of those groups. The implied emotional dysfunction and the belligerent notion that they weren’t faithful enough left them with limping spirits and bruised manhoods. Among them, some retained their faith and choose to actively lean on God with earnest yet others abandoned their faith entirely, unable to believe in a God who would mandate men to forcibly rewire them.

When I was a kid, there was an episode of the animated G.I. Joe television show in which the protagonists were brainwashed to fight for the other side. When the villain got his way, their eyes glazed over in a red haze, newly programmed to think and act differently. It upset me when I watched it, enough that the episode remained with me for decades. As a teenager, when I’d hear stories from my friends who attended these groups that promised them they could “pray the gay away,” the images of the G. I. Joe characters being brainwashed would resurface in my mind like mental gifs. That’s why today, I have no patience or tolerance for such hurtful nonsense.

My Facebook post received a handful of likes, far less than a silly selfie or picture of the New York City skyline would typically garner, and most were from other gay men of faith. There were a couple comments but nothing spiteful. Then, a church friend from years back, asked me what my opinion was about men and women who were once immersed in a gay lifestyle only to leave and live a successful heterosexual life.

Beyond the semantics of the word “successful” and the implication that it was a struggle for them to achieve said heterosexual life despite the fact that they are wired to do the opposite, it was an innocent question. There was nothing hostile or biting about it. I responded by saying I think it’s a choice to live our lives a certain way and that my frustration was born from those who force people into reparative therapy so they can “fix themselves.” He then asked if I thought sexuality was a choice. My response was “No. I don’t think that’s true. I think we make a choice on how we live though.”

I could see myself, the person-in-process me, working something out in the comments section of my Facebook post for all to see. I then remembered that Facebook, like Twitter, is not a safe space to do that. We each have people in our lives, I call them inserters, who have a habit of inserting themselves into conversations and activities. On social media, those are the people who insert their opinions into your comments section and start fights with your friends. Having experienced long, public diatribes on Facebook that became really messy really quickly, I quit commenting publicly and messaged him privately.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. I have friends and acquaintances who have posted about their differing opinions on my political or more liberally-minded posts and in an effort to have a dialogue and truly understand their heart, I’ve moved the conversation into a private message. It’s not because I’m afraid of my opinions being out in the world, after all I was the one who posted the article, but it’s because I want to truly hear them – just them, absent any antagonistic inserters. In turn, I’m able to let them hear my heart as well. It’s not about being right or wrong, but about seeing their point-of-view in a way that makes sense as friends. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can attempt to understand each other in a civil and hopefully thought-provoking way.

And that’s what he and I did. I shared my heart, he shared his. He pointed me in the direction of some people whose stories I’d not heard before and hopefully I was able to do the same. Our conclusions may have been slightly different, but I understand where he’s coming from and he said he understands where I am as well. That’s all we needed, the willingness to try to understand and a safe space in which to do so.

Back on the unsafe battle grounds of Twitter, of the many people I follow, one of my favorites is my yearbook teacher from high school. She’s a fabulous woman, bright and well-learned. She loves Oklahoma State University, is a person of faith and happens to be a Republican. I love OSU’s opponent Baylor, am also a person of faith and happen to be a Democrat. Our political (or collegiate football) leanings rarely point in the same direction and we are both vocally passionate about our support or disdain for various political figures, movements and policies, yet she’s someone I often learn from. Our discourse isn’t one of disdain or off-the-cuff hostility. Our discourse is one of consideration and listening. We agree on as many things as we disagree, and when we take the time to listen, we’re able to come together on a landing pad of commonality.

And that’s how I learned to be a person-in-process on Twitter and even on Facebook: by listening. It’s true that there are some things we will never agree on. That’s life. But the value of looking all sides of the cube, of considering the opinions that may seem irrational at face value, and of listening to the hearts of those who are as passionate about their cause as I am about mine cannot be understated. That’s how we discover that common landing pad, because it’s probably there somewhere. It may be really small, but the only way to find it is by listening and communicating in a way that gives air to both voices.

On the topic of reparative therapy, I will not be moved, but through the conversation with my church friend, I was able to understand where his questions came from. He also gave me some things to think about I hadn’t considered before. I’m a person-in-process and I like the push-and-pull of that process. It really is an odd world we live in today but by listening to him on Facebook, by listening to an embattled woman on Twitter, and by listening to my yearbook teacher from fifteen years ago, I’m able to learn and be challenged, even in the icky drippy combative world of social-media.

@RyanCBrinson

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