I regularly walk and jog in the park across the street from my house and, in doing so, have come to recognize other “regulars,” interacting with them to varying degrees. A few like to engage in a brief chat now and then, but mostly we just share a quick smile and hello as we pass each other.
Yesterday morning, I went out much later than usual, and as I was on my third and final lap, a man I’ve seen from time to time over the last couple years but never really spoken to much hailed me from across the baseball field. “Hello!” he hollered, walking up to the fence that separated us. “Haven’t seen you in a while! How are you?” I explained that my schedule tended to vary a great deal in the summer, said that I was well, and then politely reciprocated his question. When he said, “Oh, I’m fine,” I was ready to answer, “Good! Nice to see you!” and keep moving. However, he launched into several other statements and asked about my house, which prompted a vague memory of him walking by one day while I was putting my trash cans out.
He told me his name and his wife’s name (though she doesn’t walk with him) and went on to talk about how he tries to keep an eye on my property when he walks by, and that he “gets after” people who throw trash on or near it. Because I live by a heavily used park, trash is a constant issue. People who park or walk by my house sometimes leave their waste on the curb, strewn across the grass and gutter, stuffed into the bushes bordering my property, or tossed right onto my lawn. I keep a permanent supply of disposable gloves in my front hallway closet because at least 2-3 times a week, I am picking up food wrappers, empty cups, shards of marijuana prescription bottles, dirty diapers, empty beer bottles, and the occasional used condom.
Needless to say, it’s disgusting, not to mention discouraging, so hearing this man declare that he’s looking out for me and trying to get people to do the right thing completely disarmed and moved me. However, the well of gratitude springing up in me was abruptly curtailed by the next words out of his mouth. “Yeah,” he said, shaking his head, “I’ve seen those wetbacks throw trash on the ground right in front of me and then just laugh when I tell them to pick it up.” I must have visibly recoiled and/or flinched at what he said, because he hurriedly added, “I mean, I’m not using that word in a bad way, you know. I’m talking about the illegals that just came over and don’t know how to act.”
I sputtered for a second or two and said something like, “Well, I don’t think that really has anything to do with it. It’s just a few jerks who litter, and there are some of those in any group of people.” He said something about a few bad apples spoiling the bunch, which I attempted to counter, but at that point, I was just anxious to get away from the conversation as quickly as possible and did so a few seconds later.
On the way home and over the next couple hours, however, I continued our conversation in my head. On the one hand, I was shocked and dismayed by his use of such a racist, offensive term, and I was angry at myself for not speaking up more sharply and clearly against that. On the other hand, there was the part of me that recognized that this man was (in the midst of his racism) trying to be neighborly. Had he not used that term or defined a particular group of people as responsible for littering, I would have warmly thanked him and been on my way. But he did, and that complicates things.
I started by imagining myself giving him a scathing put down–one that would really lay bare his awfulness and make him feel terrible. Later, one of the responses I came up with in one of these imaginary re-do exchanges was, “I find that term extremely offensive. ALL people are created in God’s image and should be treated with respect and dignity.” Which is probably a better response to him if I really believe that. Then I remembered something else I supposedly believe, which is that I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself. And this guy is my neighbor. Shit. So, while I’d love to yell at him, or (more in line with my personality) just ignore or avoid him from now on and dismiss him as a gross, ignorant human being, to do so would be a direct contradiction of what I believe and would treat him as an inferior “other.” Which is exactly what I’m condemning in him and his own mentality.
So how do I interact with this man in the future? How do I engage him as my neighbor, as a man made in the image of God, a man who was genuinely trying to help me out, but also a man who has an ugly streak of racism that I don’t want to condone in any way shape or form? As my boyfriend observed later, when I shared the incident with him, this is a perfect encapsulation of what’s happening in America at large right now. In the minds of many, there are those who are righteous and good, and those who are corrupt and evil, and a vast distance between the two that clearly distinguishes them. Of course, EVERYONE (including racists) thinks they are a part of the former group, not the latter. And they don’t just think this–they know it, adamantly. And so engagement and connection breaks down, conversations escalate into name-calling and sneering tweets (aka “sneets”), and most of the time the true merits and faults of ideas and the ambiguities of complex issues can’t really be unpacked and discussed in any kind of deep, rich, or growth-giving way because we’re all too busy huddling up to talk about how much we hate the “other” and how awful they are.
This is nothing new. Jesus was commanding his followers to take the logs out of their own eyes before pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye thousands of years ago. “You hypocrites!” he called the “holy” men of his age, the men who were absolutely certain about their own righteousness and judged others. Ouch.
It’s not enough for me to point out the splinter in the eye of my neighbor (and it is a significant splinter!). I have to also consider my own shortcomings and hypocrisies. I don’t have to dig very deep to find them. One of the reasons this man’s degrading language particularly struck me to the quick is that I’d just spent over an hour and a half reading about the children who have been and are being separated from their parents in border states (the reason I got started on my walk so late). I listened to the recording of them wailing in heartbreak for Mama! and Papa! and wept. I donated to the Facebook fund to help families get legal aide and reunite parents with their children. Like so many, I deplore what’s happening and am ashamed of a leadership that condones and encourages what I find repugnant on a moral and humanitarian level.
But in the midst of my outrage, I have to ask myself: What do I believe in when it comes to immigration? Do I believe in open borders? Am I okay with thousands of people coming into the country on a weekly basis with no oversight or regulation? I am still learning and thinking about this, but currently, while I do support increased quotas, an increase in government resources to expedite the process for asylum seekers, and humane treatment of those who have entered the country without going through the proper channels (usually due to desperate, life-threatening circumstances), I do not support completely open borders. So what does that mean? Does that erode some of my moral high ground?
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I don’t think I’m too far off in guessing that the majority of Americans don’t support completely open borders, including many of those protesting current border and immigration enforcement practices. And there is much to protest. But while we might have an extremely negative and undesirable version of immigration policies right now, I’m still left with the question of what the right and desirable immigration policies and practices should look like in the future. Even if we increased the number of immigrants allowed into the country, simplified the process, and made a path to citizenship/amnesty available to those who have lived here for a certain number of years–without open borders, there would still be some type of limit. Which means that at some point, real people with real pain and suffering will be turned away. Will be told “no” or suffer some type of negative consequence if they break existing laws. And I will bear some responsibility for that–not just evil politicians, ICE officers, and border officials. Certainly that’s something that needs to be examined and carefully thought through, but in the extreme, fraught, and polarized political arena we currently live in, I’m finding little guidance and must admit to being a little fearful about even raising these questions or stating a position publicly.
I applaud the current outcry against separating children from their parents and am heartened to see that it’s coming from a range of people with a range of ideologies. Just before starting this post, I read a breaking NY Times article that due to current political pressure (although I’m willing to believe/hoping? that some are also moved by a sense of decency) Republicans are moving against President Trump and his Secretary of Homeland Security to pass legislation that would halt the separation of children from their parents. And that Facebook fundraiser has raised (as of this moment) over $6 million dollars to help these immigrant families. Outrage can be a good and appropriate response. It can move people to positive action and keep the powerful in check on behalf of those who have no voice. But outrage can only get us so far.
To really get somewhere, we also need self-reflection and a developed capacity for pulling the beams out of our own eyes. Yes, (insert name of person or group) is/are terrible, heartless, idiotic, out of touch, etc. Good job. You identified that. That may be a place to start. It certainly is a tempting place to start. But where does it get us in the end? What does it change in the long term?
For there to be any real progress, we need to see our own hypocrisy and the complicated implications of our own stances. We need to wade into the murky depths of the moral ambiguity that surrounds so many of the hot button issues facing our nation. We all want to be the good guys, the righteous ones, but the reality is that no policy enacted by any government or supported by any group is without negative consequences to someone or something. There are often better and worse choices, but never perfect ones. What would it look like if the policy makers and the movers and shakers in this country really talked openly and with humility about the pros and cons of their approaches? What would it look like if they could and did admit that while they believe their own ideas are the best ones, someone from the opposing side might have something of merit to offer that might further refine or balance them? What would it look like if we, the constituents, demanded and supported those kinds of conversations?
That’s what I long for, though I don’t hold much hope of it happening anytime soon. In the meantime, there’s my neighbor and the reality that if I’m practicing what I’m preaching, I’m going to have to talk to him the next time I see him, however uncomfortable that might be (just thinking about it makes me feel twitchy). This is what I hope will happen: I’ll tell him why I found his language hurtful and offensive. I’ll share some of my experiences as the daughter of an immigrant and the teacher to many immigrants and ask him about his own experience. Then I’ll thank him for being a good neighbor and wanting to help me out. And in the weeks and months ahead, we’ll keep on walking around the park saying hi to each other as the mutually messy, flawed people that we are. Because all it takes for me not be better than him is to think for a moment that I am.
Thank you for your honesty and clarity. You gave me a clear mirror to see myself, my mixed thoughts and feelings. I will go from reading this to acting more compassionately, I hope. These are tough times but what times aren’t, if not in our home, then our neighbor’s.
Thanks, Michael–you give me mirrors through your work as well, which I very much need. I’m grateful we are in each other’s lives and can help each other!
Really well said, Katherine. I feel like lately I’ve been seeing more calls for people to be compassionate to others, and to be more willing to listen to people even if they don’t share their specific viewpoints. I can only hope it promotes change in all of us!
Thanks, Diana. I hope so too!
Love this, Katherine! So thoughtful!
Ann Woodward Bronson said:
Do you mind if I post this on FB?
That’s fine with me.
Well said. I’m glad I came across your blog after reading your beautiful “Gravitational Time Dilation” in Rattle today. Thanks for your insight. It is challenging not to just let out our unbridled fury at people who spew hatred at those they mark as “different” from them, but doing so makes us unable to connect with and thus actually challenge and influence those people who are causing such pain and suffering. I think righteous anger does have its place, and we need to be able to express it, but/and those of us with the privilege to already be relatively safe in America need to leverage that privilege in our interactions with others and change our little sliver of society bit by bit…