It’s the third birthday of Spokane Faith and Values. And in honor of that occasion, I’d like to vary things a little this week: rather than responding to a letter that you’ve written to me, I’d like to write a letter to you. And I’d like to begin that letter by saying thank you. Thank you for the many ways that you support the FAVs community. And thank you in particular for the thoughtful way that you engage with it via the comments that you post.
Every time that I visit with Tracy Simmons, SpokaneFAVs’ founding editor, our conversation turns sooner or later to your comments. Tracy and I will look at one another in something close to disbelief and say: Wow. How is it, we wonder, that there is a website that talks all the time about religion – one of the three subjects that Miss Manners advises us to stay well away from if we want to have a happy dinner party — and yet the comments that you post on it are overwhelmingly wise, generous, and kind?
If you’ve spent any time at all on the interwebs, you’ll know that the kind of civility that you model on SpokaneFAVs isn’t found everywhere. I’m grateful for that, grateful your grace. I don’t take it for granted. I know that Tracy doesn’t either.
I want to suggest that your grace is a big deal for three reasons.
First, it matters to me personally and, I suspect, it matters to the other writers who share their work via this site. To write is to take a risk, especially if the author is attempting to name big feelings or big truths in his or her work. And it sucks when that risk is answered with smug derision; most of us are not so thick skinned that getting flamed doesn’t hurt, not so quick at crossing the bridge that the trolls hiding underneath don’t bite. I’m so glad that, even when you disagree with something that my colleagues or I have written (and, let’s be clear, sometimes we disagree vigorously), you respond with our common humanity in mind.
Second, your grace matters because it makes our conversation together vastly more fruitful; it allows room for us to learn from one another. The dominant model for disagreeing on the Internet, in which Party A accuses Party B of idiocy, heresy, delusionality, and so on is a full-on exercise in unintended consequences. While Party A may believe in sincerity that he is simply making his point forcefully and persuasively, the real outcome of his words is to push Party B into fight or flight mode: Party B becomes like the boxer whose whole focus is on parrying blows and getting in a few punches of her own. Listening becomes impossible. The way that you post comments, by contrast, invites even those who approach reality in a very different way than you do to respond with a generous curiosity.
Last of all, I’d like to suggest that your grace is a big deal because it’s good for you. The habit of responding to stimulus with cynicism is self-reinforcing: with every catty or aggressive remark that we post, we drift a little farther into self-satisfied bitterness and apathy. But magnanimity is also self-reinforcing. This is the principal that the psychologist Timothy D. Wilson calls, “Do good, be good”: when we act in a way that is patient and compassionate, it changes us and we actually become more patient and compassionate. Wilson introduces his research by quoting Aristotle: “We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlling by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.” As we post comments that are wise, generous, and kind, we become a little more wise, generous, and kind.
So, thank you. Thank you for what you have written. Your comments are a big part of what makes SpokaneFAVs’ third birthday something to celebrate.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.