As I averted my eyes and continued on my way, my sense of confusion and embarrassment gave way to an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Adding money to her bowl seems to only add indignity to indignity but at the very least I could have had a conversation. I comforted myself with the fact that my walking away was merely because I didn’t know what to do, but the guilt and shame hung over me like a refusing-to-depart mist. In fact the real truth was I chose to avoid the discomfort of the situation.
While it happened many years ago, my failure to act with compassion and connection still haunts me.
Bryan Stevenson, an African American civil-rights lawyer said, “There is power in proximity”. He tells the story of being sent to Death Row to deliver a message to a man awaiting execution. At the time he was a fresh young lawyer and fearfully nervous. The inmate was chained, hands, feet and waist and Bryan found the whole experience deeply confronting. Yet as they talked and shared the stories of their lives, they found common ground. Bryan walked out of that jail a changed man. That moment reshaped the whole direction of his life. Horrified by the injustice and cruelty he saw, he committed his life to fight for civil justice.
How easy it is to pass by on the other side, to keep my distance from the uncomfortable. When I get close enough to see the wounds, feel the pain and experience the brokenness, maybe what I fear most is what I will learn about myself in the process. Will I be adequate?
Maybe fear itself keeps me from love.
In some small way my life changed that day. Since then I’ve read, listened and sought to understand, not only the history, but the true level of injustice that African American men and women live with every day. I’ve waded into stuff too awful to contemplate and that’s why I can no longer look away.
It seems to me that the issue is not as much seeing all men as equal, but rather seeing all men as broken. At some level we are all broken. Some have the opportunity to cover that brokenness through money, position, education or success but those things merely mask how broken we are.
The world is weeping. Weeping for justice. Weeping for equality. Weeping for mercy. Sometimes the cries explode in anger and sometimes they are the wet tears of fear and despair that have continued to flow for generations. When I cross to the other side to avoid the issues, to keep my distance, I vote with my feet for continued injustice and inequality.
If I’m brutally honest with myself, I have thoughts of superiority every day, subtle, unconscious bias, but no less superior. When I was growing up my parents taught me never to look down on anyone. They had a saying that was used a lot in those days, "There but for the grace of God go I". Looking back now I realise how arrogant and superior that statement was and although my parents were humble, gracious folk, that's the thing, superiority is insidious, creeping into the crevices of our mind and blinding us to our brokenness.
But when I live out of my brokenness, there can be no sense of superiority, only shared humanity. Without proximity I doubt there can ever be true empathy.
What if I’d sat down on that threadbare rug and had a conversation and we’d shared our stories? I suspect I might have walked away changed and at the very least she would have felt a level of respect and dignity. No longer invisible.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.