I found Ryan the mechanic slumped over his workstation and I felt a sharp stab of concern. We've developed a friendly banter over the years even though I only see him when I get my oil changed.

"Are you okay?" I asked in a friendly tone. "You look tired."

"I had an awful night," he snapped.

Fearing I'd overstepped, I retreated to the waiting room. "An awful night" could mean a lot of things. My mind raced through a series of possibilities. Was it a fight with his spouse? Was a family member sick? Had somebody gotten into an accident?

Once again I was reminded that we're surrounded by people in the midst of terrible battles against invisible foes. We need to be compassionate, courteous, and kind. But too often, social pressures compel us to adopt an attitude of hostility that does not align with who we truly are.

During my conversations with Ryan, that would become sadly clear.

Ryan came into the waiting room and sat behind the desk. Without any preamble, he launched into a story. People sometimes unburden themselves to me.

It turns out Ryan had been up all night talking with his stepson who had gotten caught up in some bad decisions. It was the usual stuff, underage drinking, dating problems, complex family dynamics.

Parents sometimes experience crippling moments of clarity that expose how vulnerable our children are to toxic influences. The world is full of monsters, and if you catch a glimpse of too many at once it can leave you stunned.

Those worries are compounded when you don't get any sleep. Hopelessness takes control. There's a terrible sense of inevitability that everything you care about will be stripped away.

Ryan shoulders slumped in defeat. But I felt relieved, this wasn't as bad as I feared.

"The way you looked," I said, "I thought somebody had died. But nobody's been arrested or hurt. The challenges you're facing are normal. You're doing a good job as a dad. You'll get through this."

All Ryan needed was a little context.

I saw some of the stress lift off him. As I got in my car to drive away, Ryan looked a lot better than he had when I first got there.

The next time I went in for an oil change, Ryan seemed well-rested. It was the start of the Thanksgiving holiday and we were chatting about our plans.

My family elected to hang out at home and do nothing this year. The school district recently removed the principal where my wife works, and that's caused some stress. I mentioned this to Ryan, and his response came close to breaking my spirits.

"Yeah, my father-in-law retired from teaching because of all these transgender issues…"

As he said this, Ryan glanced up at me to gauge my reaction.

I am committed to advocating on behalf of groups that are too often the target of hate campaigns and violence. The hardest part is figuring out what to say so that you don't make things worse.

In the course of a couple seconds, I thought up and rejected a dozen responses to Ryan's comment. I was still trying to figure out an appropriate reply, when he spoke again.

"There was this girl who insisted on using the boy's bathroom," Ryan said. "She went in there, and then complained about two boys who were looking at her. The two boys got suspended. My father-in-law thought that was extremely unfair."

Ryan shook his head.

So, there I was trying to process this story. I was so overwhelmed with questions that I struggled to find anything to say.

The first thing that went through my mind was how my daughter got spit on in Spanish class last year. The school's response to that situation informed my reaction to Ryan's story.

You don't have to be too far removed from an event for the facts to become jumbled. Ryan's story had passed through a couple of filters, so who knew what had actually happened?

In the midst of these musings, I realized that Ryan had fixed me with an odd expression. Unfortunately, transgender bashing is so normalized in our society that it was probably his expectation that I'd just go along with it.

The hate algorithms of social media make it seem as if there's a lot more support for intolerance than is actually present. People get so used to scrolling past awful viewpoints that their personal filters are eroded.

I expect that's the objective of many of these platforms.

We get into problems when hate speech starts to migrate from social media into real life. Because I don't spend all that much time on social media, my filters are still in place. The result was that when Ryan told his story, it brought a pained expression to my face.

Before I could say anything, Ryan sensed the mood and began to backpedal.

"I guess I shouldn't talk about it, I wasn't there. I don't know what happened."

I finally mustered a reply.

"Teaching is a difficult job."

I wished Ryan happy holidays and gave him a friendly wave as I left the garage, but it felt awkward. I sensed that he was embarrassed, and I was sorely disappointed in him.

I told Ryan's story to my wife, and she snorted in disbelief.

"Well, that's not what happened," she said. "More likely, the two boys who were suspended engaged in some kind of unprovoked physical assault. Who knows what priors they had? You don't get 'suspended' for looking at somebody."

In my experience dealing with the local school district, and my wife's experience as a teacher, I've found it takes an extremely egregious act to get suspended.

The kid who spit in my daughter's face didn't get suspended.

I recognized that I'd just been exposed to a form of word-of-mouth propaganda. In American society, people need something to talk about when they're sitting on bar stools. I suspect they feel an impulse to invent anecdotes that support the outrage ideology of our most radicalized politicians.

I've seen it happen before.

After the 2020 election, my cousin called me up to rant about how he'd been given a pen rather than a marker to vote.

"Why did they change it for this election?"

I knew a pen was fine because I'd voted absentee and I called up the State Elections Commission to ask. I told this to my cousin, but he became offended that I wouldn't go along with his fabricated story of election fraud.

"Your story is nonsense," I said. "Don't go around telling it to people because you'll undermine faith in our elections."

He didn't listen.

Hatred becomes normalized when people allow it to infiltrate small talk.

"How's the family?"

"Got any plans for the weekend?"

"It sure is a nice day."

"This transgender thing… am I right?"

When you get to that last one, you have to break the spell. You have to say, "Wait a minute, what are you talking about? What exactly is it that you have a problem with? Are you telling me that you don't believe all human beings have a right to basic dignity?"

We're all so overwhelmed with getting our change and getting on with our tasks that we push through small talk without really listening. When somebody says something awful and you don't push back, they take it for agreement.

Like any of us, Ryan cares about his kids and is vulnerable to the consequences of irrational fear. Every now and then we have to recognize that many of the monsters that keep us up at night are of our own invention.

That's the gravity of hate. It's something human beings have to deal with.

Decent people can get caught in the gravity of hate. We have to try and lure them back, and that requires moderation.

If you see a toddler teetering on the edge of a stairway, you have to suppress your impulse to scream a warning. Loud noise might startle the child and cause her to fall. Instead, you have to control your fear. You have smile and change the gravity of the situation so that the child is naturally compelled to come to you.

This is the reaction we have to condition ourselves to present when confronted with hatred. When you encounter somebody teetering on the ledge, don't push them in. Instead open your arms, and offer an embrace.

I'm still learning this.

You can't use force. You can't drag them towards you kicking and screaming. The moment you let go they'll run back with such heedless, desperate momentum that they'll be lost.

I'm still maturing into my acceptance of this approach. It's much more satisfying to scream and yell at somebody in a righteous fury.

Our social discourse doesn't help.

We watch cowboy movies that depict a heroic sheriff responding to injustice with violence. We study the brutal victories of generals, kings and emperors. We revere sports heroes who prove to be stronger than their opponents. Everything we consume celebrates the need to dominate.

That impulse only makes things worse.

At some point we need to accept that the universe is indomitable. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you throw force at the universe, the universe will only throw it right back.

When we embrace a mature perspective, we become better equipped to save our children when we find them teetering on the ledge.

Parents are vulnerable to self-recrimination because, on some level, we all recognize how much we are trained to stand among the monsters.