I remember well the day I discovered irony.
It was a weekday afternoon in the autumn of 1980. I was a new student at Ingleside Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona and I was trudging across a large piece of abandoned property that butted up against the east side of the school. I remember the ground being essentially destroyed: at one point I think it had been an orchard, but the citrus trees were all gone and the soil surrounding what was left of someone’s old home had been baked into the pale, weedy crust that returns quickly behind neglect in the desert.
I recalled as I walked around old tires and other garbage that my mother had recently told me that my father had joined a local group that was trying to get the land turned into a park. I had just been looking through the fence at recess and had seen a couple of cars doing donuts in the wrecked dirt and remember thinking that he and his group would have an awful lot of work to do to pull off something like a park, but I also remember boasting to one of my friends that he was part of that project.
I was on my way to my first real social event as a seventh-grader. Not a dance. Not a football game. Not a picnic. Not a birthday party.
I was going to a fight.
There was a large group of kids streaming across that field that day, all being drawn to the same place: a church just down the street on the other side of a big canal. The awareness of the irony had just burst into my head and I was quietly sharing the moment with my friend.
The irony? Not only was the fight taking place behind a church, but that the name of the church was “Prince of Peace”.
My friend and I had a good laugh at that, but we were quiet about it because, like most seventh-graders, we didn’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves for being overly intellectual. To do so would have risked being singled out, taunted, and possibly end up being one of the kids that was going to be who the other kids were going to see fight on another day.
I can’t tell you who was fighting that day, nor can I tell you what they were fighting about. Like most childhood squabbles I’m sure it probably wasn’t over much – some perceived slight or just someone trying to assert some sense of superiority. I can’t even tell you if there was a winner or if either of them was hurt very badly. I’ve never really cared for watching others fight, so I suspect that even though I was there I probably closed my eyes for much of it. I’m willing to bet, though, like all the other kids, that I probably added my voice to the noise, cheering one or the other on, shouting to be seen and heard and to feel like I belonged, and probably, because I could get away with it, used language I would not normally have used in front of my parents or any other grown-up.
Thirty-five years later I find myself thinking about this moment quite a bit. The world has changed in ways we could scarcely imagine then. I’m sure my parents were watching the presidential election news, but they only had 3 channels on which to see Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan. To me, as a 12 year old boy, it already seemed like ancient history but the country was still emerging from the hangover of the war in Vietnam and few adults and even fewer kids could have told you with any certainty where Afghanistan was or if it were even a real place. Everyone knew where the Middle East was and even kids could point to Iran on a map because of the hostage crisis. Even as a 12 year old I could grasp that much of the country was worried about our economy.
Thirty-five years ago few, if any, of us would have known much about computers, let alone something as mystical as “the web” that was already in its early days of development. Discussion about all those topics was personal: either face-to-face or on the telephone.
Thirty-five years later, though, much of the conversation is the same. The country is agonizing over its direction and who to choose as its leader. A conflict in a curious corner of Asia has essentially ended, again without a climactic victory but with a gradual tapering off of aggression. Iran is still a concern, as is much of the Middle East.
Thirty-five years later we aren’t discussing the presidential race, the Middle East, Afghanistan or the economy in person. These conversations are largely occurring on social media.
Thirty-five years later, I see the same irony.
So often now I see that “social” media can be anything but social. I frequently see people writing mean things and hurtful comments, often with language that normally wouldn’t be used in front of their parents or other grown-ups.
Thirty-five years later, though, I have to ask myself: as I make my approach to the social gathering place, which side of the building do I want to head to? As I make my way will I head around to the back door? Will I plant my feet and curl my fists? Will I join in the chorus of taunts, snarling my support for something I don’t fully understand just to be seen? Will I use language that I wouldn’t use in front of my mother? Will I just close my eyes and try to shut out the unpleasantness?
Or will I walk around to the front door instead? Will I choose to open my arms and lower my defenses? Will I choose to build up those around me? Will I be civil, polite, and use kind language? Will I open my eyes to the needs and fears of others? Will I try to understand, rather than convince? Will I lend my efforts to building something that helps others do the same?
Will I choose the Prince of Peace?
Thirty-five years later, if I’m in Phoenix, I often drive past a wonderful park that stands where the wrecked orchard used to be. I see laughing children playing on the playground, families having birthday parties and adults exercising on the fitness stations that dot the edges of the well-maintained grass.
My father passed away twenty-four years ago. I can’t ask him what his views are on the economy, the Middle East or Afghanistan. I don’t know who he chose in the election that year.
I do know which door he chose.