"They open new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges."
In Chapter Six of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis extols the virtues of dialogue, friendship, and kindness. For him, dialogue means approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another and to find common ground. If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. Unlike disagreement and conflict, persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines but quietly helps the world to live much better than we imagine.
The Pope argues that a country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: Popular culture, university culture, youth culture, artistic culture, technological culture, economic culture, family culture, and media culture. Lack of dialogue, on the other hand, means that in these individual sectors, people are concerned not for the common good, but for the benefits of power or, at best, for ways to impose their own ideas.
Francis takes exception to the media’s noisy potpourri of facts and opinions as an obstacle to dialogue since it lets everyone cling stubbornly to his or her own ideas, interests and choices, with the excuse that everyone else is wrong. According to him, the media have the potential to “help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which in turn can inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. However, according to the Pope, the media can help us a lot today when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances: “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.”
The Pope points out that when one part of society exploits all that the world has to offer, acting as if the poor did not exist, there will eventually be consequences. Sooner or later, ignoring the existence and rights of others will erupt in some form of violence, often when least expected. Encounter cannot take place only between the holders of economic, political or academic power. Genuine social encounter calls for a dialogue that engages the culture shared by the majority of the population.
Pope Francis also points out the importance of being kind to others. He recalls a biblical passage where Saint Paul describes kindness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable, especially by sharing the weight of their problems, needs and fears. This way of treating others can take different forms: an act of kindness, a concern not to offend by word or deed, a readiness to alleviate their burdens. It involves “speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement” and not “words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn,” he writes.
For Pope Francis, kindness is a vehicle to free us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy. He says that often, nowadays, we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say “excuse me,” “pardon me,” “thank you.” Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference. If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled.
Kindness ought to be cultivated; it is no superficial bourgeois virtue. Precisely because it entails esteem and respect for others, once kindness becomes a culture within society it transforms lifestyles, relationships and the ways ideas are discussed and compared. Kindness facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges.
I write this column watching events unfold in the United States, a country I love not the least because I have many close relatives and friends there. I also lived in America for a total of ten years, as a graduate student in Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, and later as an international environmental lawyer working in Washington DC. My children grew up in America and we loved our time there. But it is a country we do not recognize anymore, or perhaps we were blinded because we live in Takoma Park, one of the most progressive cities in the East Coast.
That was nearly 15 years ago and now we do not recognize that country anymore – with the hatred, the rejection of basic decency, the hyper-partisanship, the disregard for the other.
It is my wish that whoever wins in the US elections bring back dialogue, friendship, and kindness to the center of American society and politics.
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