I have a little secret. It’s not actually a secret to those who know me very well. In fact, sometimes I think the only person who is truly kept in the dark about it is me because it’s something I hate to admit about myself.
I’m not actually a pessimist. Shocking, I know. Particularly ironic to admit on a blog entitled “It Ain’t All Rainbows”. But deep down, my heart is one of altruism and belief and, when I’m feeling particularly confident and sappy, even hope.
I truly believe the world can be better. I truly believe the Church can be better. I truly believe I can be better. The eye rolls and exasperated sighs and smirks when one of the above fails me is simply a defensive mechanism. It hides what is truly happening in my soul when something I believe in with all my heart fails me: deep sadness.
It’s why I can tell you with absolute certainty that I’m not ok right now. I mean, yes, I’m surviving. We’re doing work from home, school from home, socially distanced waves at friends and we have adjusted to this new normal. We aren’t in dire straits physically in any form right now.
But I am still dying just a little bit more every day.
People are often surprised to learn I have a degree in Political Science. Today, I am loathe to discuss politics. You really have to push the right buttons to get me to engage aside from a quick “Yeah, it’s crazy” and an eye roll (inner voice chanting: DE-FENSE). But I majored in politics and I studied our government because I believe in it. Or at least I believe in what our nation can be. But lately, I’m losing that faith. And not because I’m losing faith in our system. It was always flawed and destined to be improved upon. I’m losing faith in us. In Americans.
Greg and Levi and I have been escaping to my parent’s beach condo about an hour away from Orlando every chance we get this year. Most weekends you will find us sauntering up the coast to spend a weekend forgetting about pandemics and what we have lost. This past weekend was no different. But as we left that cozy beach town this last Sunday afternoon, we came to the town’s largest intersection. On one side of the street were supporters of our current President. On the other side were supporters of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
We ended up sitting at the red light of that intersection for a while and I found myself taking a long look at the human beings on either side of that road. I read their signs. When possible, I met their eyes and tried to smile. And when we pulled away, I was in tears. Not because they were being violent towards one another or because they were screaming at each other. Both sides were peaceful and happy.
I cried because they were standing on opposite sides of the street. I cried because they were barely looking at one another.
We don’t look at each other any more. Perhaps a global pandemic has given us an easy out. It lets us hide behind social media profile pictures. It limits the amount of time we physically spend with people who don’t look like, sound like or believe like we do. But if we are honest, we have been on this road for quite a while.
A few years ago, I read an article in the New York Times with a story that still haunts me. The article was recounting the testimonies of Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Each story was more horrific than the last. But the one that stopped me in the tracks, that made my gut plummet and my hands tingle like they do when someone jumps out behind a corner at me was this:
A survivor recalled the train ride she took from her hometown to the concentration camp she was doomed to. As I’m sure you know, the Nazis took to transporting these prisoners by cattle car, stuffing in as many humans as possible while still being able to shut the door. What you may not know is that often times these cattle cars were pulled by passenger trains. The prisoners were the last passengers loaded and unloaded, ensuring that the travelers in the front cars never knew of their existence.
This survivor was a young girl of about 10 when the guards attempted to load her onto the car. But when the car was found too full, for even a small 10 year old girl to squeeze into, the guards made a last minute decision to allow her to sit in the passenger portion of the train, with a guard standing near by, of course.
This young girl, who hadn’t slept or eaten in days since she had been taken from her home, was seated next to a middle aged German woman. The woman was quite talkative and excited about her journey to visit a sister she hadn’t seen in quite a while. She prattled on and on, even offering parts of her lunch to the young girl. At one point she finally noticed the vigor with which the girl was eating and the state of her ragged clothing and asked where her parents were. The young girl replied they were in the back, in the cattle car, with the rest of the Jews.
The woman sat perfectly still for a moment, with her mouth slightly open. And then said, “Don’t tell lies. The German people would never allow such a thing to happen.”
And then she turned her back to the girl, faced towards the window, and never spoke another word the rest of the journey.
When the woman heard something she didn’t want to know, she stopped looking at the girl in her eyes. She stopped looking at her at all.
My fear in life is that I am that woman. My fear is my pessimistic defense mechanism will keep me from looking in the eyes of what makes me feel uncomfortable or ashamed. My fear is I will lose the ability to find the humanity in someone I disagree passionately with. And that loss of ability will result in my missing something very important.
My fear is we are all losing that ability.
I think about the woman on the train every time I pick up my phone to find the news, personal or national. I think about that woman as I force my fingers to scroll by click bait news. (By the way, you don’t have to believe in fake news to know that click bait news is a real thing. If you are reading articles whose headlines include the words “devastated”, “shocking”, “deplorable”, “sucker-punched” etc, and it’s not referring to a natural disaster that has left people dead, you have just been suckered with click bait. And your phone will give you as much of that junk as you can click on. And this goes for both sides of the political aisle. Watch the Netflix documentary “Social Dilemma” if you don’t believe me.)
I think about her as I watch people engage in “debate” via social media. If you truly want to hear what’s in a person’s heart, you have to see their eyes. Invite them to dinner. Or…because COVID…pick up the phone and hit that FaceTime button. Find their eyes.
I think about her when I want to squirm as someone who loves me points out an archaic expression I use regularly possesses evil roots I didn’t know of. I fight to find their eyes, even while wanting to cast mine down in embarrassment or pride.
I think about her every time I want to roll my eyes and become dismissive when I hear something I don’t like.
In those moments, I wrestle down deep to find the woman God made me to be. The woman who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe. I force myself to believe once more that we can be better and that to be better we need to see the color of each other’s eyes.
We don’t have to be the woman on the train. We don’t have to always agree. In all honesty, we don’t even have to all like each other. (This is always a huge relief to me.) But it doesn’t mean we allow our differences to divide us so largely and permanently. It doesn’t mean we have nothing at all in common. It does mean we should all be willing to stand up and fight back together when a truly horrific evil fights for the soul of our nation.
If the woman on the train had acknowledged what was happening to that little girl, would that have stopped World War II or even changed the fate of that girl? Probably not. But it would have changed that woman. And big ships turn slowly with many individuals pulling on the wheel together.