Why I Left Facebook – And What Life Is Like On the Other Side

(I wrote this essay months ago at the request of an editor who then realized a different department’s editor at the same magazine had assigned something similar to someone else. Sooo it was dropped, and has been sitting on my laptop ever since. I’m finally posting it here because words should not be wasted, and because I have a feeling many out there can relate.
One thing first though: Lest anyone think I’m taking a holier-than-thou approach when it comes to social media, rest assured that re-reading this today forced me to re-confront the hold my phone and social media still have over me. I may one day return to Facebook, for professional or personal reasons, but not until I can use it rather than it using me. Leaving it was a giant step in my chosen direction toward living more and scanning less, but it was not a cure. Twitter, you’re next on the chopping block.)

 

I left Facebook on Feb. 6, 2017. It was a tiny act of defiance against the trappings of modern society that felt at once empowering and self-sabotaging, a way of relieving anxiety while generating a different kind.

My only regret is not doing it sooner.

It was my father’s 75th birthday, and that morning I posted an old photo of the cake we’d given him when he turned 40. I wrote a sweet caption and watched as the “likes” and good wishes began rolling in.

That’s when the anxiety hit. I wasn’t nervous about people’s reactions to what I’d written; I was anxious about my use of the social network, angry at myself for spending time wondering who was reacting to my post, and annoyed at how pressed I felt to check for and respond to people’s comments.

I had turned off notifications and deleted the Facebook app from my phone long ago, yet I still compulsively pulled it up on my phone’s web browser many times a day, and seemed incapable of closing the Facebook tab on my laptop for more than short bursts. When it came to social media in general, but Facebook in particular, I increasingly felt like a lab rat. I was a classic example of what behavioral scientists call being enticed by a “variable reward schedule,” pulling the social media slot machine lever again and again waiting for the next “hit” in the form of a “like,” a share or an amusing or enlightening tidbit posted by someone else.

Whether or not my life was actually being enriched by such things is up for debate. But one thing was becoming clear: My Facebook usage was more than a habit. This phone glancing and finger flicking had become an almost involuntary tic, filling just about every crevice of my daily existence that wasn’t already spoken for (and, increasingly, time slots that were spoken for).

And I hated it.

Anxiety and Dependence

It wasn’t my fault, exactly. In a 2012 University of Chicago study, social media and email communication were shown to be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Assistant professor Wilhelm Hofmann, one of the lead researchers on the study, had a plausible explanation for their findings. “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist. … So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.”

Ohhh, yeah. Not only was my phone always readily available, but little nips of social media felt as harmless as popping a few M&Ms, momentary escapes into a virtual adult world of news, entertainment and wit to balance out hours of being immersed in the little kid shenanigans and grown-up stress of my real life.

But if I was honest with myself, many of those “momentary escapes” ended up lasting longer than I’d intended, leaving my real life swirling around me in the background as I passively scanned “breaking news” headlines and virtual updates on other people’s days. Not only that, but my general attention span had gone down the tubes; my book and magazine reading had taken a way-backseat; the voices in my head were increasingly unkind regarding my looks, accomplishments and life; and the country’s collective reaction on social media to our president’s first few weeks in office had spiked my anxiety level off the charts.

While some might think becoming anxious or depressed because of what’s shared on Facebook is an issue only for the most sensitive among us, Facebook’s own controversial study from 2012 gives my reaction some merit. For a week in January of that year, the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 users were secretly manipulated to show either all positive content or no positive content. Researchers found that those who were seeing only negativity created and shared more negative posts, and users who were treated only to positivity posted more positive content.

In short, what we see on social media affects our moods. And I was passively letting the increasingly unhinged body politic dictate mine.

Stepping Offline

Ironically, the only thing that gave me more anxiety than being on Facebook was the thought of not being on Facebook anymore. How could I walk away from the easiest means I had of knowing what my friends and family were up to? As a freelance writer, wouldn’t I be hampering my career by cutting myself off from the ability to share my work with the largest social network in the world? I would miss valuable tips and insider info posted in the private Facebook groups for writers on which I’d come to rely. And what about my kids’ classroom Facebook pages? I looked forward to seeing pictures and reading updates about what they were doing each day.

For a long time that Fear Of Missing Out kept me hanging in there, always pledging to check it less, to put down my phone for longer periods, and to refrain from posting more than a few times a week. But those promises were as empty as the ones I’m guessing smokers and alcoholics make to themselves, before they decide to do something drastic.

In the end, the fact that I grew anxious at the thought of leaving Facebook meant that I should – at least for a while. I didn’t like feeling dependent on something that in some sense wasn’t even real, and certainly wasn’t necessary. And for me, using a temporary blocking app like Moment or Offtime wasn’t enough. I needed a 24/7 detox.

I needed to go cold turkey.

So two hours after I posted my birthday tribute to Dad, I deleted it – along with every other trace that I’d ever been on the social network. Turns out everything becomes invisible when you deactivate your account. Until or unless I reactivate my Facebook profile, it is as if I never existed there.

Gaining Time

Once the deed was done I felt an almost palpable relief, and as the day wore on I noticed the calm increasing. My mind was no longer buzzing, burdened under the weight of the massive amount of information, images, headlines, ads, opinions and invites it was used to taking in. And I was dumbstruck by how many times I caught myself glancing at or reaching for my phone, ready to queue up my web browser and refresh my news feed.

On the flip side, I felt lonely. At least I thought I felt lonely. I had made no public announcement about my departure, and I wondered how long it would take for people to notice I was gone. Would they notice? In those first couple days, it felt like I was living on a deserted island.

But after a few days I came to realize I wasn’t feeling lonely, I was just experiencing being alone. Without the crutch of grabbing my phone to pull my thoughts away at every turn, I was left with time to sit and think about whatever I wanted or needed to think about. Like a tentative, relaxing exhale, I began filling those little crevices in my day with daydreaming, and reading, and exchanging text messages with friends, and sometimes nothing at all.

In short: I traded Facebook for staring at the wall.

And time! I gained so much time. That first day, in addition to my normal workload and parental duties, I finished reading a magazine I’d been trying to get through for weeks, caught up on a TV show, wrote an essay, organized the rest of my work week, lingered on a birthday call with Dad, texted with some friends and family and got eight and a half hours of sleep.

Eight and a half glorious hours.

No Mo’ FOMO

Nearly seven months later, when I think about reactivating my Facebook profile, I get tense. I kept my Instagram and Twitter accounts, both because I have no intention of becoming a hermit and because those sites never siphoned away my time or spiked my anxiety the way Facebook did. Yet the most startling thing about leaving the giant social network is the fact that after several years of being one of its more active participants, having been routinely complimented there on everything from my parenting to my professional endeavors, I feel much healthier without it.

I do miss the easy access to people I like – watching their kids grow, enjoying their humor and talents, and supporting them in times of need or stress. But I realize they, too, were only sharing carefully crafted bits of themselves, just like I was. To really know someone, you have to connect with them personally, and I’m trying to do that in more intentional ways.

No matter how many “hits” I scored pulling that virtual slot machine lever as part of the Facebook community, those feelings of social acceptance and camaraderie are no match for having more time to live my own life in the here and now, to fully appreciate what and who is in front of me. Because we can have as many lives online as we feel like crafting, but we only get one shot at the real thing.

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Mosaic Art Is Life


At least once a day I give myself a silent pep talk: “I am not stupid.” Sometimes it’s after one of my sons has asked me a question about the world I should be able to answer but can’t. Sometimes it’s when a friend mentions a bit of world news or drops the name of a musician in a way that suggests everyone but me already knows it. When that happens my mind spins, then blanks, then settles with resignation on the obvious: I’m so dumb. I can’t remember shit.

The nature versus nurture pondering no longer really interests me. I am who I am. For a dozen reasons or none at all, I grew to limit myself because I didn’t believe I was smart enough to say the right thing or make the right choice. I flat-out didn’t trust myself. I’ve done that team-building free fall exercise more than once over the years, and I never had a problem falling back into a web of others’ arms. For most of my life, though, I would have never relied on myself to catch me. Not without prior approval from at least three people, anyway. Couldn’t risk it.

During the years of our marriage, whenever I would complain about how busy my ex always was with his hobbies, the endless number of things he spent time and money and energy on, he would ask me, “Why don’t you have any interests?” Because I’m stupid, I would think, my mind searching desperately for an activity, a sport, even a single subject in history I might have an inclination to study or pursue. Nothing came to mind. I felt blank, dull, uninteresting.

Then many years ago, quite out of nowhere, I decided I wanted to try mosaic art. The idea of arranging different materials together to form something new appealed to me. It seemed to be the kind of art that didn’t involve having to be a skilled artist at all. It was something even I could do.

I started collecting old plates in varying colors and patterns, imagining the day I’d get to break them apart and reshape them however I wanted. I envisioned myself being surprisingly adept at it, a natural. I daydreamed of giving my art as gifts.

But I couldn’t bring myself to break any of the plates – half of which were already cracked or chipped. What if I did it wrong? What if I wasn’t as creative as I imagined I could be? What if nobody wanted my art? What if nobody even liked it?

To this day I’m not sure how I got the courage to trust myself that first time. I suppose it had something to do with the therapy I’d started yet again, and the gnawing, growing realization that trusting myself was the only thing left to do. My true voice, the one that had been a whisper for so long, muted by my inner “stupid” monologue, began to yell the unrelenting call of the desperate-to-be-heard. She cried for freedom, for the chance to stop playing the role she’d been playing, to yank the theater curtain down and allow herself to be the person she yearned to be, not the character she’d become, the role she’d been playing for years to the applause of the crowd and the dismay of her inner critic.

So I did what I felt I had to do: I smashed the beautiful, flawed plate that was my life, agonizing over its demise as it fell. I watched it crash to the ground by my own hands. Seeing it in pieces broke my heart. Many of the shards cut me; they made others bleed too. I sobbed with guilt and pain. I felt selfish and wrong, and in some ways I was. I patched the wounds and prayed for the scars to fade.

And then I started picking up the pieces, broken into new shapes, revealing previously unnoticed beauty and depth. Through my tears and despite my fears, I began fashioning my first work of mosaic art. Bit by bit I added other elements to my life that make sense to me, that make sense of me.

I fell backwards and I trusted that I would catch myself. Because I had to.

In order for this new way to work, I have to be deliberate and intentional, much more so than I’d ever been before. I have to draw inward each time I’m faced with a decision, whether it’s what to do on a weekend or whether to send a pitch to a new editor. It’s embarrassing, but the answers don’t come easy. I have to focus hard, to fight back the critic and actively choose what will move my life forward, what will make me feel good now and later. I have to force myself to be a grownup, not an insecure young girl. I have to strive to be authentic, not an actor reciting her lines, desperate for applause.

I was not used to doing this. I never used to pause and trust that the answer would come to me; I used to pause and wait for someone else to answer for me. It’s exhilarating but exhausting, and sometimes I still find myself waiting (hoping?) for someone else to decide my salary, my sanity, my Saturday night. I still fight the old way, the paralysis and self-doubt. “Stupid” is not a word I allow in my house, yet it has made a nest in my psyche and it does not want to leave. So when it pops up, I take a moment and define myself using other words. “I am not. I am this and this, and this.” Piece by piece, word by word, action by action, I shape and arrange, glue and grout, and hope it holds.

It must be, because every day I care a little less whether anybody approves of the work of art I am becoming.

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Mommy’s Little Helper

(Both childhood and parenthood can be so difficult and complicated; we live in the same rooms but see them from completely different eye levels. It took me decades to begin to see my mother’s suitcase not just as a means to escape, but perhaps, for her, as a visual reminder when she needed it most that she was making a choice … to stay. 
For at least a minute every day, try like hell to see the world from the perspectives of the people around you. Better yet, ask them. ~ RSP)

 

A little girl in a gingham dress and apron holds a smiling raccoon on the cover of the diary. The furry bandit is clutching a pink flower in its paw; a happy little bird is perched on its tail.

“Memories Are Forever” the journal declares.

There’s a lock on the front but the tiny key has been missing for decades. Scotch tape reinforces the battered binding, worn from years of opening and closing, scribbling and revisiting the shy girl’s secrets on its lined pages.

The first entry is dated Sunday, Feb. 13, 1983, the day she turned 10.

 

Dear Diary,

Today was my birthday and I ruined it! I had bloody noses so I ruined swimming with daddy. I love being with daddy, we both have birthdays on the same month. I didn’t get to have lazonia today either, but mommy promised she’d make it this week.

 

She scribbled notes to herself in that puffy pink book that made no sense, words of self-deprecation and loathing on what should have been the happiest of days. She grew into double digits while shrinking inside, always shrinking, apologizing for who she was and what her shortcomings were doing to those around her.

While the girl penned her innermost thoughts, the truth as she saw it, her mother packed her bag and placed it by the front door again. The faux leather case, its sides slightly caved in, was a near-perfect metaphor for her middle-aged, desperate inclination to be something she was not. “Maybe I’ll go away and find three good little girls and be their mother instead.”

The suitcase typically stayed for days, sometimes longer. The girl never dared touch it, to see how heavy it was or unzip the side and peek in. She hung her head in shame for the disappointment she was. She felt terrible for her mother, who had to suffer so unfairly for her ungrateful children.

 

Monday, Feb. 14, 1983

Dear Diary,

Today I wrote a letter to mom. It’s Valentine’s Day and I know she’s had a rough time. I wanted her to know how much I really love her. Because sometimes we forget to tell her that and she feels down. When I got home Nonny had sent me a card with $10. She always gives me money, I wonder why? Today I got to have lazonia. Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

When she packed her own suitcase for a trip, the little girl’s father showed her how to roll her clothes instead of fold them, how to fit more in and keep wrinkles down. She and her sisters were taught to be good packers, never bringing more than they needed. They always had to leave things behind they wished they could take with them.

“I could get so violent, and I hated myself afterward. I couldn’t control it,” her mother would tell her daughter years later about why she’d wanted to leave so many times. She spoke of being overwhelmed with mothering and angry at her husband, hating herself for the painful punishments dispensed again and again, the rage she had learned from her father, passed down like poison. They’d be better off without me, she’d thought.

She’d be better off without us, the girl thought, lying on her twin bed with the rainbow sheets. She never pondered what her mother needed to bring with her in that suitcase by the front door, only what she wanted to leave behind.

 

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 1983

Dear Diary,

Today I felt like screaming. I didn’t finish my Brownie things or cleaning my room. I didn’t work on my class diary and I didn’t get to bed on time. I never should have asked to stay up til 9:00 because I can’t get to bed by 8:30!!!!

 

Sometimes the suitcase was quietly put away, and a relief would settle over the household. Twice it left with her mother, just briefly, but for those hours the girl’s world spun out of control, the inevitable nightmare having come true. If only she’d been more helpful, more thankful, more loving, more in tune with what her mother needed. But it was too late. She’d failed again as a daughter, a person, a girl.

Without knowing it she’d packed her mother’s suitcase full of her guilt and her shortcomings, stuffed it with carefully rolled scraps of self-loathing and regret. Don’t wrinkle the regret, it’s all you have. The one chore her mother never asked for help with she’d completed unwittingly anyway. She’d packed her mother’s suitcase with all the reasons, spoken and implied, the matriarch must want to leave. Mommy’s little helper.

Three decades would go by before she’d finally get the nerve to ask the question she’d never even thought of as a child. What was in the suitcase, Mom? The answer, like a soothing balm and a sudden slap, made heat crawl up her neck and tightened her chest with something indistinguishable. Anger? Relief? Love? Pain?

“Pictures of you girls.”

 

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Bookmark

Dead ant.

I saw this ant,
this mangled, flattened speck of a thing
frozen on page 23
of Beautiful Souls
and suddenly
I was no longer thinking about Paul Grüninger
and the Jews he saved from certain death
in 1938.
I was thinking about the person
who read this book before me.

Who killed the ant?
A student on the HUB lawn, I bet.
Cramming for a test on Eyal Press’ evocative portraits,
simple acts of humanity
that appeared extraordinary
in desperate, confusing times,
But more concerned with evening her tan
and the boys playing catch nearby,
bare-chested,
their T-shirts draped at their skinny hips
by a corner tucked into their shorts
as they silently graded her.

Maybe a frazzled mom at Spring Creek Park
sitting on a blanket near the sand pit
where her kids were throwing dirt
and not sharing
as she tried to squeeze three minutes of leisurely reading
into an afternoon crammed with
Cheez-Its
and grapes
and bathroom runs
and tiny ants
wandering across her rumpled throne.

When I was a kid library books
had this magical pocket in the back
that held the names of all the people
who’d read the words before you.
I would study the names and the penmanship and the dates,
Wondering
who they were and what they thought.
Will I like this book as much as Steven Cross did?
Mira Schultz checked this out twice in two months.
A little heart dotted her “i” both times.
Who dribbled something on page 16?
Which one underlined “I shall always be with you”?
Are they with me now?
Will I be with the next one who reads this book?

The ant is with me.
I bought the ant and its final resting place
for 3 dollars at a used bookstore and café,
where it smells like knowing,
and wistfulness,
and coffee.
New books are special,
but the best books are used.
The best words are worn, broken in.
Edited. Enlightened. Entertaining. Endless.
Reread, shared, creased, stained, memorized.

When I write something
and send it out into the world
I reread it, sometimes fifty times,
every time from someone else’s point of view.
I scrunch my brain into someone else’s skull
And try to read my own words with their eyes.
I don’t know if it is an exercise in empathy
or a painstaking devolution into madness.
But it is important to me,
to hear my message hit different ears.
Because what I need to say
and what I want you to hear
are sometimes two different things.
But I can’t know that until I do both.

We cannot see fingerprints on words or poems
or books
but they exist.
These stories we read and borrow and dog-ear
and drop tears onto
and underline passages from
and buy and sell
and inadvertently crush ants with
are important,
But no more important than the recognition
and reverence
for the fact that we are sharing them
with other people.
Strangers we are now connected to,
in the way that we know
some of the same sentences
they’ve sounded out in their minds.
How extraordinary is that.
We know what stories they’ve taken in,
the character of Grüninger
they, too, have contemplated.
We share that now.
Us.
We, the people who have held this copy of
Beautiful Souls.

So thank you, ant.
You did not die in vain.

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An Hour After I Cast My Vote, I Wanted It Back

vote

An hour after I voted yesterday, I wanted a do-over – not to change the person I voted for, but to change the heart of the person voting.

It hit me a few minutes after speaking with a friend, who said she’d cried as she voted that morning. “I didn’t think I would, but I did,” she smiled. I’d become so blind that it took me several minutes to realize what she meant – that the history-making moment of seeing a female presidential candidate on the ballot for the very first time was worthy of spending a second a bit overcome in that little booth.

I had not taken such a moment, and that’s when I realized I’d voted with hate – not love – in mind. I’d hastily filled in the little oval for Hillary Clinton pretty much as a tiny black-inked “f*k you” to the hate-filled campaign of Donald Trump.

And yes I now see the irony. And, God help me, the way out.

I started noticing the signs more and more in my last few runs around town. Despite all the negative press, despite the incomprehensible bigotry, misogyny and fear that underscored their campaign, “TRUMP-PENCE” (Pence! The man who doesn’t believe in such basic things as climate change and evolution and equal rights for the LGBT community!) signs kept springing up in State College. I didn’t know what to make of that. They stole my already labored breath. They made me feel differently about certain streets. In my mind, they may as well have said “A racist probably lives here.”

On Monday I crested a hill I’ve run a thousand times and there it was, a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” sign on the carefully raked lawn of the sweet old couple who’d saved me from heat exhaustion earlier that summer, offering me the shade of their carport and a cold bottle of water when I nearly collapsed toward the end of a sweltering 10-miler. My heart sank.

They seemed like such good people, I thought.

I was doing it without even realizing it. The seeds of hate, planted by good intentions like yearning for equality and justice for all, were sprouting inside me, coloring my judgment, allowing stereotypes to take over where once there were individuals.

“I just hate her, don’t you see, Robyn? She’s just AUGGH I can’t even think about her face without being disgusted!” a friend of mine raged recently, trying to explain to me why Trump would get her vote over Clinton. The hate creased my pal’s pretty face and made her nearly come off the cool grey sofa on which she sat. I stayed quiet, silently appalled and feeling sorry for the misguided, mangled heart of this woman I’d been regularly praying with in a Bible study for more than two years.

Trump’s face makes me feel that way, I thought, feeling more justified in my opinion than the woman sitting across from me, seething and in pain.

“Hillary’s a liar!” people said on social media over and over, ignoring all the times Trump lied – to contractors who worked for him, to students of his own university scam, to investors, to the IRS, to his first wife, to journalists, and to the entirety of America in every single debate.

Five statues of a naked, bloated Trump appeared in cities across America last summer. “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the project was called. People gawked and reveled in the mock-humiliation of the narcissist’s likeness bared for all to see. Many of the same people jumped down Trump’s throat for focusing on and judging women based on their looks over the course of his campaign (and his life). “Body positivity!” they chanted. “Fat shaming is disgusting!”

Hate is what brought us here. Hate on both sides. We picked a side we felt was filled with lies, immorality and terrible judgment and we dug in our heels against it. We ignored or made excuses for a candidate’s shortcomings or mistakes and pointed fingers instead. That one’s way worse, we accused.

I’m sure many people voted with love in mind. Hell, I even posted a video the day before the election, pledging to do just that. But many more, whether they recognized it in the moment or not, cast their votes yesterday based on hate.

Hate for big government.

Hate for small-minded leaders.

Hate for a broken system.

Hate for racism and discrimination.

Hate for lies and deceit.

Hate for immaturity and ineptitude.

Hate for immorality.

Hate for misogyny.

Hate for the idea of having a female president.

Hate for a pro-choice agenda.

Hate for a pro-life agenda.

Hate for Obamacare.

Hate for minorities.

Hate for the fear of gun control.

Hate for the fear of guns taking more innocent lives.

Hate for religions that are different than yours.

I admonish my kids when they use that word, and I’ve used it 24 times already in this post. Hate is a cancer and it must be eradicated. The good news is we already have the antidote. I think right now many of us are worried about how to deliver it to newly elected leaders who are, at best, in denial of even having such a disease. But there must be a way. It is up to all of us to follow our hearts, not our fears.

The first thing I will do is to take the signs down in my mind; I hope you will too. Force yourself to forget ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Train your mind to see individuals everywhere, not stereotypes. And if you read that sentence and thought ‘Yeah, I know a lot of people who need to do that,’ there’s a good chance you are still part of the problem.

I don’t know what kind of change will come from above in the next four years. But I do know that in my life, nothing will change if I don’t. I am the leader in my home and I can be a leader in my community, and I choose to lead with love. I have to, so that I can survive and my children can thrive. We are building their inheritance every day, all of us, the ones who I disagree with on fundamental issues and the ones who weep beside me today.

Last night I cried for our country, especially for the vulnerable and marginalized among us who now might be facing an even steeper uphill battle than they’ve always known. I turned off the TV early and crawled under my covers, trying to pray for God’s will and for our nation’s incoming leaders with a heart that was not clouded by grief and anger. My phone continued to buzz and light up throughout the night, friends and family as stunned by the news as I was grasping for a way to make sense of the darkest implications of this election swirling in their minds.

But as one of our nation’s best and brightest leaders knew, that’s not the way forward. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose actions as a regular American citizen had more of a lasting influence than many of our country’s previously elected presidents. That, today, should inspire us even more than his actual words.

This is not me determined to put on rose-colored glasses. This is me with eyes swollen from crying, a heart heavy with anxiety, but a soul that thankfully keeps color-correcting my vision when I begin to process issues or people in black and white, and when the shades of the future I see in my mind become ominously dark.

Love is bright and bold and multi-colored. Our nation is likewise, and it will continue to be that way – more so every day, in fact. If we make it so.

Another famous MLK quote that I woke up thinking about this morning actually was paraphrased from another pastor, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who, in 1853, wrote:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

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