THIS IS THE time of year I often rave over the amazing teenagers I’ve just spent a week with, as they give up part of their summer to repair the homes of people they’ve never met, people living in impoverished conditions that most of them have never even imagined and still cannot fathom.
And yes, they are worth raving about again this year: all 29 of them, mostly students from The Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and Cardinal Newman School in Columbia and Saint Thaddeus Episcopal Church and Mead Hall Episcopal School in Aiken, who built wheelchair ramps and steps and repaired roofs and decks and yawning holes in floors, and painted shutters and carports and decks during our annual mission work trip to Appalachia.
But something new struck me this year. After I got back home. Especially after I got back to work. I was struck by how much I missed being around adolescents … because they were so much more mature and rational and civil than some of the adults back here in the real world.
That’s deliberate irony — commentary not on these adolescents (although people who do this sort of thing do tend to be more rational and mature and civil than their peers) but on what so many of us grownups have allowed ourselves to degenerate into.
For a week, even the adults in our group were largely unplugged. The no-phones policy is intended to help us form community and be fully present in our work and worship and fellowship, but what I recognized this year is how much it disconnects us from the anger and rancor that now define the body politic, how it frees us from the deliberately induced chaos and the hysterical hyperbole, from the charges and counter-charges created from whole cloth, and the overreactions by people whose job it is to objectively report the facts.
Perhaps I’m just more attuned to the problem than before, but I doubt it. I think the problem has gotten much worse. Exponentially worse, it sometimes seems.
One of the other adults did feel the need to show me a video clip that horrified him and that he believed would horrify me (he was right). But other than that, I spent a week without being exposed to anyone sanctimoniously disparaging or mindlessly defending the president — or the former president, or defeated would-be presidents, or anyone else.
I was the least unplugged in the group, because I had to be up to speed on everything that had happened in South Carolina when I returned to work. Near week’s end, our priest asked me if anything had happened in the world that he ought to know about. He was so disconnected that he asked, only half in jest, if we had gone to war.
It was only after we came back down from the mountain, that I realized what a gift we had been given: to disconnect from the meanness and ugliness, the venom and vitriol, the astounding degree of incivility that now pervade our society. (One profanity-laced phone message that awaited my return was from a man spitting nails over what he called the liberalism of The State. His evidence? A cartoon by Robert Ariail that mocked … North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. I’ll let you ponder what would cause a self-professed conservative — or any American, for that matter — to take such offense at derision of someone who for the past seven years has been the most universally scorned and despised person on the planet.)
The value of disconnecting is hardly a revelation; others have written better than I about the damage done to us as our world becomes smaller and angrier and we become engrossed by the seething rage that we mistake as news and so rigidly divided into teams — tribes may be the more accurate term — that we find ourselves attacking positions we used to defend and defending positions we used to attack, because our focus is on team and tribe instead of issue and principle. Actually, we don’t often “find ourselves” doing that, because we are too blinded to even recognize what we have become.
Early in the week, as we were working through a near-rebellion after several teens had their contraband phones confiscated, a freshly minted Clemson graduate noted how much the students just five or six years her junior needed to recognize the negative effect our phones have on us. Not just our ability to interact with other human beings, but our very psyches.
Later in the week, she pointed out that just as we looked with pity at the people we were serving and wondered, “How do they live like this,” God must have that same question about us. Not because our floors are disintegrating and our roofs caving in and our refrigerators are bare. But because our sin-filled hearts are so broken by selfishness and anger and resentment.
We are so blinded by that selfishness and anger and resentment, so divided into tribes, I would add, that even those of us who call ourselves Christians become enraged when our priests dare to preach … the Gospel. Rather than acknowledging how many of our political fetishes separate us from God. Rather than setting the example that Christ calls us to set.
Just as our group of missionaries tried to help those homeowners who are so lacking in material things, God blessed all of us with a week of disconnection from the meanness and ugliness that we are allowing to consume us. May we all receive such a blessing — and be wise enough to recognize it.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.