I recently overheard a conversation that went something like this:
Elderly, white middle class guy from the Midwest #1, “I don’t understand those people in Ferguson. What does rioting have to do with justice?”
Elderly, white middle class guy from the Midwest #2, “Maybe they think the tax payers will build them all new houses and increase their food stamps now so they can keep on being unemployed and having babies with no daddies.”
Here’s what I thought at first:
How could they even think that way?! I don’t understand!
But as I pondered it I thought, you know… that’s a powerful statement.
I don’t understand.
You see, there are a great many things I don’t understand.
I don’t understand how two well educated, reasonably well traveled men could speak that way about another ethnic group in the year 2014. I don’t understand because I didn’t grow up in their generation. I didn’t witness the chaos in Detroit in the 1960’s or the changing of the local economies during the time of “white flight.” I wasn’t raised in a time when black children and white children were not even permitted to use the same restrooms. I don’t understand.
Furthermore, I don’t know the answer to the man’s question. I don’t understand what drives a population to riot. I suspect that, in a city of nearly half a million people there are probably only a tiny fraction taking part in such dangerous and criminal behaviors. But the underlying tension, the desperation and frustration, the panic and anger and distrust… it seems clear that those powerful feelings that are the driving forces behind extreme actions are very wide-spread. I don’t understand what it is to be that powerfully frustrated or frightened by the society around me because, whether I knew it or not, I grew up and have lived most of my life under the relative safety and security of “white privilege.”
The trail had been blazed and my thoughts ran wild.
I don’t understand how any woman could ever abort her baby. I don’t understand because, even though they weren’t both planned, my pregnancies were both wanted and I had a kind, loving, gentle man by my side who would go to the ends of the earth to make sure that my children and I have a safe place to live and food on the table. I had medical care and I was finished with school and I wasn’t being abused and… I could go on. But it all comes to the same thing. I don’t understand.
I don’t understand why anyone would choose to drink or abuse drugs every day when the substance in question leaves them feeling sick and miserable and, in time, strips from them everything from financial peace to the love of family. I don’t understand because I’ve been lucky enough to escape the black chains of addiction. My own personal battles lie elsewhere, and so I don’t understand.
I don’t understand why someone would risk their lives and the lives of their children to cross a desert and live illegally in another country. My own country provides unlimited access to emergency medical care, free education for every child, food stamps and community food pantries for those who can’t buy their own food and so much more. So, truly, I don’t understand what drives a person to such a choice.
I don’t understand why someone would ever take part in a plan to fly an airplane into a building killing themselves and thousands of innocent people. I’ve grown up in a land where I was free to practice whichever religion I chose, pursue as much education as I desire, work in whatever field I like and achieve any financial status I set my mind to. I have lived my life free of the fear of one faction or another setting off a bomb in my neighborhood or bursting into my home to drag one member or another off to Heaven-only-knows what kind of torture. I was raised in a time and place where I never really had a real concern that another nation would come in and tell me that my property was no longer my own or that my nationality had suddenly been redetermined. My world is so far removed from the world of the people who commit such acts as to be nearly unrecognizable and so I don’t understand.
There are so many things that I don’t understand. As I get older I realize more and more how very many things in the world I don’t understand. I can strive toward understanding. I can read and research. I can engage in dialogue and ask questions. I can watch and see… truly see… my fellow humans and learn from them.
I can learn to sympathize and I can strive toward justice. But sympathy is not empathy. I cannot know, with 100% certainty, what I would do in your shoes because I’ve spent my entire life in my own shoes and, while they might have similarities, they are not the same.
One of the beautiful women of advanced experience in my life, who is kind and gentle and extraordinarily loving once told me, “A few years ago I had a moment that changed me forever. It was the moment I realized that there is nothing… nothing… of which I would not be capable given the right set of circumstances. I can never look at another person and say, ‘I would NEVER do what they did.’ I don’t know what I would do. I haven’t ever lived their life.”
This woman has a clear sense of right and wrong. She doesn’t say that every choice that every person makes is a good choice. She has never, in any way, implied that she thinks morality is subjective. She simply acknowledges that the humanitarian, the successful business person, the loving mother, the terrorist, the drug dealer, the murderer, the thief… they are all humans. And, but by the Grace of God go I.
We all need love.
We all need forgiveness.
We are all broken creatures and we all need to acknowledge that, sometimes, we don’t understand and sometimes we aren’t understood. Maybe, in some way, acknowledging that will help us be open to knowing one another better and working more meaningfully toward finding solutions to the problems that lie beneath the desperate choices that others make that we just can’t understand.
Are you, too, seeking to save the earth, promote world peace and raise productive citizens without expending too much effort?
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