Four months ago, after shying away from heated vaccination conversation, I dove in. On Facebook, I posted a thread inviting us all -- yes, including myself -- to raise the bar for communication, aiming away from divisiveness around charged topics and into more accepting, curious and patient interactions. Two hundred comments later, I've spanned the range of feeling bold, calm and confident to angry, confused and deflated.
Stepping back, I've been able to see some themes arise that provide insight for life as a whole. When a topic is as intensely charged as vaccination, it offers extraordinary learning.
Most of the learning consists of reminders life is willing to offer up when we dive in, and some of it is stuff I'd never really noticed. Here's what I've found so far:
1) We are all students of communication. Just because we've lived to be 40 or 80 or 25 does not mean we've mastered what still stands as the toughest part of being human: learning to communicate well, with curiosity and acceptance rather than blame and seeing one-right-way.
2) We are always having an impact. Every one of our thoughts, feelings, spoken words and actions have both an intended impact and an unintended impact. It is pleasant to know our intended impact has been some-sort-of-lovely -- empowering, nurturing, uplifting -- but our unintended impact isn't usually something we celebrate. Knowing some of my vaccination-thread comments had landed in a judgmental way with people I care about did not feel good; that was unintended impact resulting from communicating while I felt angry and defensive. I did what I could to clean that up, and now the air between us is as clear as we can make it. On the other hand, a lot of people felt empowered, supported, championed, seen, informed and inspired by what I wrote -- and that was all pretty great since those were all a part of my intended impact.
3) Even close friends can trust very different information. Gosh this sounds simple, and for weeks it was actually quite difficult for me to accept this, to really comprehend how varied "credible" sources are within my own social circle. There is wide variation in how people source our information and make our decisions, and it is valuable to consider our tendencies and preferences within this range. Some choose based almost entirely external information like scientific studies, research and "authorities." We could call this an external-sourcing approach. Others choose largely from a "gut" knowing, from instinct and intuition, which may include some inclusion of external observations into research. In the beginning of this charged conversation I thought I decided mostly on my gut, and what I've found is I actually have an enormous foundation of observations and evidence to support this knowing. (On a related note... Our culture can be harsh in deeming those without credentials as untrustworthy; ultimately, if you trust yourself and your findings and beliefs, no one can disempower or belittle that with any effect. People with credentials are by no means inherently more trustworthy, just as studies are by no means proof of fact, especially considering the influence of who funded the study, and how often deceit and fraud surface in the arena of vaccination research.) The essence of this piece of learning is that it if we want peace of mind, we must accept that we are all doing our best with the information we have and trust.
4) Aligned company and conversations can be very helpful in relaxing our defenses and feeling supported, relaxed and confident, while also pointing us to resources that likeminded people share. Along with many friends who share my perspectives, I continue to find pediatrician Dr. Sears a refreshing and bold voice on the topic of vaccinations. Challenging company and conversations can help us reflect on where ego has a grip on us and we would benefit from letting go or taking on a different perspective.
5) Minority perspectives are not always welcomed with grace or at all. As my coach often says, curiosity is the gateway through conflict. Many people are quick to blame and argue rather than asking and trying to understand. Never in my life have I felt myself "in the minority" -- as a woman, a Latina, or anything else -- until I engaged publicly in the vaccination issue. I have a lot more compassion now for people engaging in minority conversations on a public scale.
6) Mothers can be very defensive about their choices. We all want to trust that we're doing our very best for our children -- with their education, nutrition, lifestyle, vaccinations, everything. And despite my hiccup judgment moments, I do believe we all are doing our best. When somebody -- especially somebody in 'your circle' and especially a close friend -- presents something that significantly challenges your own choices as a mother, it can be tough not to be defensive. I encourage us all to become familiar with the PAUSE button, and increase our capacity for pausing when we're upset, rather than reacting.
7) Facebook is usually not an effective place for meaningful conversations on charged topics. I had high hopes for it, and now I see how my idealism was well-traded for a little dose of accepting-what-is. When a highly charged topic surfaces within us, we have so many choices for how to respond to it. In the case of close friendships, it is well worth a phone call or in-person talk to sort things out.
8) People on both sides of charged issues can be very unskillful and unkind. Name calling, making fun of people, insults and their cousins are spewed out in so many conversation threads on the subject of vaccination. Unless we want to feel upset, it makes a lot of sense to choose our conversations mindfully. The "happy" place I've found includes one close friend whose vaccination perspectives are almost entirely different from my own, and I have deep respect for her capacity and willingness to engage with dignity, pause, curiosity and respect rather than insults, defensiveness and blame.
9) Being happy feels much better than being right. There is no need to convince anyone else of anything. Loving people as they are is what brings peace of mind. Accepting our own decisions as just fine, however "right" we feel about them, doesn't mean we need to preach or convince. Judgment creates drama. And happiness doesn't thrive on drama.
10) Engaging was worth it. It took courage for me to engage publicly on a charged topic in a way that felt dignified to me, and I have no regrets about it all. I am proud to have honored my passionate voice and provided a forum for people to share insights, questions, passion and fear. Many people messaged me privately, not wanting to enter the intensity in a public manner, thanking me for honoring what I saw, felt and shared. These affirmations don't mean I'm right, but they do make me feel more grateful for my choices, my voice and the learning they lead me to.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, a mother, freelance consultant and eternal fan of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. This deeply personal blog and our recorded talks and workshops are devoted to one of her great passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.