What Twitter, one of my best friends, an anti-vaxxer and a cat taught me about the current division in our societies

It must be the full moon that brings up so much emotion this week, I caught myself thinking at my home in Bali where the calendar is based on the lunar cycle. Balinese spirituality attracts lots of Westerners looking for healing themselves in some sort of way. There are different communities of foreigners on the island, those who believe in detox but not in masks, those who enjoy the Bali life without realizing their privilege, those who organize parties to increase their Instagram following without complying to the COVID-19 rules and together with all that, people who have opinions about all those people, from a ‘morally charged Western point of view’, including me myself and I.

Tired of my own opinion

I found myself writing in a direct message to one of my Twitter colleagues that ‘I’m tired of all the opinions, including my own’. It is easy to judge each other from behind our laptop, it’s much more courageous to start a conversation with people who aren’t aligned with our opinion. The outcome of those conversations can be surprising, that’s what I discovered a few months ago when I decided to address someone’s behaviour at a beach club in Sanur in Bali. The man was celebrating his birthday with his family when something in their food and drink order went wrong and seriously frustrated him. He took it out on the staff of the place in a very patronising and demeaning way. Once I figured out his name, I discovered he earns his money by inspiring people and companies globally as a speaker, coach and author. To cut a long story short, he wasn’t really practising at the beach that day what he was preaching in his slick looking online presence. So I sent him a message sharing my confusion about that with him. The first response was defensive, him saying to me:

“If you would really know me, you would understand that I’m all about love”.

I told him that with or without knowing him better, his behaviour towards the local staff seemed out of proportion at that very moment. And then a few days later he came back to me again with a message, saying he’d thought it over and realized that he might have been too harsh. He sent a picture of him embracing the manager of the restaurant after he’d decided to go back to the place and apologize. It brought a big smile to my face and I thanked him for sharing his moment of reflection. To be honest, I never expected this man — who I had already labelled as ‘another rude privileged crazy spiritual Western foreigner’ — to reconsider his actions and change his point of view.
I have this story at the back of my mind when I engage in the next Twitter discussion about the situation in Bali and it teaches me that not all people are unwilling to look critically at themselves, but if we don’t talk to each other anymore the opportunity to do so disappears.

Compassion towards other opinions

And what I did with this particular man happens to me also the other way around. An audio message from one of my best friends totally caught me off guard this week. We’ve been friends for almost thirty years already and she feels more like a sister to me. Maybe that’s the reason why the ‘food for thought’ she gave me based on a meeting she had had with mutual friends, totally came across the wrong way at my end. ‘You’re often judgemental and don’t leave space for other people’s opinion’, ‘you say you’re easy but you’re actually not’ and ‘you sometimes think you discover something new that’s been there already for twenty years’, she said with a little bit of a nervous voice. My first response — which I obviously didn’t share with her — was to never talk to her again.

“‘Friends come and go’ I heard myself think. And ‘what a nerve for someone who never sends me a message anyway’.”

It took me a few days and consultation over Vietnamese drip coffee with my best friend in this part of the world to realize the critique in fact came from a place of love. The other people involved in this story didn’t have the same courage as my friend who sent me the audio message for reflection. Instead, they decided to talk behind my back and let her clean up the mess. Besides the fact that I was emotionally triggered because I felt sad to hear such tough criticism about myself, there was a grain of truth in all of it. I don’t always feel compassionate to people who aren’t sharing my opinion. And especially regarding the topic of my work, which focuses on media diversity, inclusion and anti-racism, my level of tolerance towards dissenting opinions is not very high.

Don’t think though that I’m willing to compromise on the issue of racism, what I’m saying is that trying to persuade people without compassion only pushes them further away from me. Sometimes I decide not to engage and end our friendship if there isn’t any willingness for contemplation. But I also understand these encounters are the ones that I shouldn’t step away from. As a matter of fact, we need much more people who keep the conversations going and decrease the division in our societies.

Arguments that originate from critical thinking

An online conversation with an acquaintance who doesn’t believe Covid-19 exists and who is an anti-vaxxer, proved to me again that listening to each other’s point of view is essential. She raised the following question on her Instagram:

‘How come people who are pro mask and pro lockdown still smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and eat processed food while that lifestyle damages their health even more than the coronavirus does?’

We got drawn into a debate about individual versus collective responsibility, about acting purposely versus acting out of a lack of experience and about believing in the system versus protesting against it.

The interesting thing was that during our long chat the actual commonalities between us seemed bigger than the differences. We both think the governments should pay more attention to the mental health issues as a consequence of the lockdown and to the healthy lifestyle solutions that decrease the risk of getting very sick through Covid. We agreed on the fact that the lives of the young people should be valued as much as the lives of the elderly and that some governments — including my own in The Netherlands — should have taken better action at the beginning of the crisis. When it comes to the solution for this crisis, our opinions differ. And I also observe a distinction between her being completely convinced of her own truth and me creating arguments that originate from critical thinking, allowing for doubt and not-knowing.

Her determination probably creates a disturbance in her private life, when friends find it hard to discuss this topic with her and distance themselves for that reason. The start of a division. Exactly that happens with my friends when I’m not open to their opinions. Again, we should not compromise on topics of human rights abuse, don’t get me wrong. Instead, we should refer to the International Human Rights Law more often because that is our common ground. Only by reaching out and genuinely listening to each other, we will discover that the values we hold in life are most of the time fairly similar.

Animals can sense your feelings

And then there is the cat I’m taking care of in the house where I’m living at the moment. Our relationship isn’t easy. From the first day I met her she was wounded so I wasn’t just a new person in her life, I was also the stranger who hunted her with antibiotic cream and disinfect shampoo. Not the best introduction to any new friends I guess. Luckily her wound healed naturally and I could slowly get to know her better without unintentionally hurting her. After three days of biting and scratching she would also lie on my chest and let me pet her. I deliberately held some distance, not forcing to stroke her or leave her outside of my room because of her unpredictable snapping. Showing her trust, staying calm myself and acting responsible (giving her food on time) was eventually the trick to make her like me instead of hating me. Her being injured made me insecure at the beginning, not sure if I was able to heal her.

My underlying self-doubt had an unmistakable effect on the energy I gave off.

No wonder she didn’t feel comfortable around me. Animals can sense your feelings and emotions before you become aware of them. And that’s my final lesson learned this week about the division I’m witnessing between people at the moment. When you’re not taking care of yourself and make sure that you’re satisfied with who you are which makes you radiate confidence, it will be very hard to enable compassion towards others. And that same compassion is deeply needed to narrow the gap that seems to grow every day.

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