Standing in line at the grocery, I waited for a young mom with a couple of kids to finish paying. The little girl with her leaned languidly against the counter, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "I’m not arguing. I’m just explaining why I’m right."
At first glance, I was amused. But then, I wondered what kind of child receives a T-shirt like that? And what message does that send the kid? "We find your intransigence and stubbornness funny, so here’s a T-shirt reinforcing that behavior."
Later, I thought about how many adults could probably be handed the same apparel — all those folks who think they know the truth about everything. You find them writing vituperative, sometimes dishonest blog posts, or responding aggressively in the anonymous comments section to articles or news items.
They are usually indignant, and always right. They only read the opinions they already agree with, and they want you to listen, but they don’t want to listen to you.
Here’s the thing about our country, and even our church, right now: There are a lot of disgruntled people out there, people convinced that they have a certain truth that the rest of us are lacking. Please, don’t try to dialogue with them because they already have the answer.
These people are almost always angry, and angry people are not prayerful people. I don’t mean that anger is always wrong. There are instances that call for righteous anger.
A refugee child’s body washed ashore on a beach, a person killed by a drunken driver, someone discriminated against for who they are — these things call forth our anger. But if we are people of prayer, anger does not define us. It doesn’t become a core value, an intrinsic part of our day’s emotion, a first and final response.
Prayerful people are people with a peaceful core, or at least they’re on their way to that core, and prayer is taking them there.
Anger defines many in various circles of the church. I’ve known social justice activists who are firebrands for their causes, but when they become discouraged, they can grow angry and embittered. They forget that the greatest social justice activist of all time was nailed to a cross. Immediate success in a cause is not guaranteed.
And then there are people who cling to the rules so strenuously that they lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s mercy and love. Those are often the people most critical of Pope Francis. They feel threatened by a church that reaches out to those on the margins. These people are often angry and unwilling to dialogue.
I love that Pope Francis has called us to mercy — a concept far from anger — and that one of his favorite words is dialogue. I love his emphasis on the primacy of conscience. In our current political situation, if we only had more real dialogue, and less anger, we’d be discussing real issues and how to solve problems rather than shouting at each other.
My favorite homilist recounted once how he struggled with the rules himself. His spiritual director, a nun, advised this priest: "Don’t focus on the rules. God is a rule-breaker. Focus on God."
Notice, she didn’t tell him to break the rules. She told him they weren’t the main point, they weren’t the central message. God is the focus, and as we form a deeper relationship with God, we stop spending our time explaining why we’re right and instead begin to listen.
Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.