where is the love?

I've been writing this post for about a month now. Well, more like composing in my head rather than the "actually sitting at my keyboard and painstakingly pecking away" type of writing. It all started one day when Little Guy and I were on our way to the Happiest Place on Earth...

Cue blurry screen, fade to black and white images with ridiculously exaggerated facial features. Mother and son stroll happily along the sidewalk admist singing birds, bees busily scooping pollen from nearby flowers, butterflies fluttering gently to the left and the right. Suddenly a cloud crosses the sun. Ahead looms the hideously darkened figure of the most frightening sort. SOMEONE WE DON'T KNOW. Whatever will our poor defenseless duo do? Can anyone save them? Tune in next week...

Okay, so it wasn't nearly as dramatic as all that. We encountered a homeless person. He was stumbling across the street, trying, in vain, to pull his t-shirt over his head. Whether he was drunk, high, or just unable to care for himself, I don't know. Because I didn't stop to find out. To my shame, I just averted my eyes, picked up my pace and kept walking.

"You have a child to care for," I excused myself. "Something could happen. You never know how those people are going to react."

"You have errands to run. You don't have that much time to get what you need to do done. If you don't do it now and get home, Little Guy won't get his nap in time. Then he won't want to eat at the right time. If he doesn't eat at the right time, he won't be hungry for dinner. Then bathtime and bedtime will be late. And you know what that will do to tomorrow"

"You can always pick him up something... you can get him a box of crackers, maybe a jar of peanut butter. And a package of t-shirts. Then if he's still here on the way back, you can stop and help him then. "
I counseled my self all the way to the store, entered the air-conditioned, Muzak-piped-in atmosphere and promptly forgot the man on the street. I did my shopping (no crackers, no peanut butter, no t-shirts) and was halfway home before I remembered.
"He's probably already moved on, anyways. Then what would you do with all that extra stuff?"
"He probably didn't even really need your help. You always hear those stories about those people who aren't truly homeless, but just prey on the kindness of strangers so they don't have to go out and do an honest day's work."
"Someone else probably already helped him by now. And, anyways, who knows how he would have reacted to your charity. "
But he hadn't moved on. He was lying in the shade of a building, ratty t-shirt pulled pitifully around his shoulders and over his head. He had propped his head up on the wall and was sleeping. Once again, I averted my eyes, ducked my head and walked on past.

I screamed justifications to myself the whole way home. All the reasons why I shouldn't have helped him, why it was okay for me to walk on by. But none of it was loud enough to drown out the nagging whisper, "You could have helped. You should have helped."

Weeks have passed since then. I haven't been exactly beating myself up over this incident, but it's continued to bother me. Realistically, the difference that I would have made that one day probably wouldn't have been enough to set his life moving in a different direction. But I'm left with those "What if?"s. I think that the reason I'm still hung up on it is that I now have more than myself to consider. I now have an example to set. Through my actions I teach Little Guy the subtleties of human interaction. I don't think that this one encounter is going to forever be etched in his memory as the proper way to treat homeless people, but what if it is? What if, through my example, he has now learned that homeless people are to be ignored? To be passed by, disregarded. To be treated as if they were invisible. It hurts my head and my heart to think that way. But the sad truth is that I don't really have an alternative answer. I don't know how else to act. I don't know where the line is to be drawn between acting kindly and acting naively. How do I set the example of compassion and charity without potentially putting myself and my child in danger?

So I've been mulling this over, pulling the incident out in the middle of the night when sleep is nowhere to be found. As I seem to be unable to come any closer to an answer, I've started working on it from the other direction. What do I know about how to treat others and where did I learn that from? From my white-bread, typical small town America, Judeo-Christian upbringing I learned "The Golden Rule": Treat others the way you want to be treated. But I don't want to be passed over, ignored, invisible. So why was that my "instinctive" reaction? Is there a secondary clause, one that adds "unless the others are somehow different"? Is it just human nature which leads me to shy away from the unfamiliar? To fear the unknown? Can it be as simple as our basic instinct for "fight or flight"?

I watch Little Guy and the cats (stick with me here. I promise this will all relate in the end. How well, I can't guarantee, but that's what you're stuck with when it's me doing the serious thinking. ) and I've noticed that their interactions seem to be almost primal. Up until a month or so ago, he was fairly stationary. A fixed object, as it were. Put him on a blanket with toys around him and he'd be there the next time you looked for him. The cats got used to that and quickly grew to tolerate his intrusion on their space. No longer was the middle of the living room floor at their disposal. At least not without having to contort legs, back and tail around balls, blankets, and blocks. Then, all of the sudden, Little Guy became mobile. And he started to notice the cats. And their tails. So much more interesting than inanimate blocks. He'd crawl after them, they'd jump up on the furniture, and all was well. Until he began pulling himself up and walking along said furniture. And reaching up to the arms of said furniture. And stretching up as far as he could reach to grab at them. Suddenly the "safe" places weren't so safe anymore. (Now, before anyone calls the SPCA, please note that there are plenty of places for the cats to go hide. And Little Guy isn't allowed to just go after them willy-nilly. There is supervision involved here.) So they've begun a little dance, one that begins with an encroachment of territory and ends with a decision of "fight or flight". Cats have had their tails pulled. Little Guy has been slapped at. So far there haven't been any casualties. So how does this all tie in?

For nine years the cats have had the run of the place. They were our babies before we chose to make a human one. Now they're having to share their space with something different. Something that squawks and swings and moves about all helter-skelter. Now they have to share. There will always be differences between the warring factions. They will always be cats. Little Guy will always be a little boy. Somehow they're going to have to work out how to get along. How to come to a livable compromise. How to tolerate each other.

'Nother jump... hey, consider it your cardio for the day. The recent events in London have sent me thinking about the "bigger picture". Not just how to raise a child who can coexist with cats, but how do I teach him to play nicely and get along with others? Every interview that I saw/heard/read of the people who knew the would-be-terrorists indicated that they appeared to be normal people. A little keep-to-themselves-ish, but normal. Which makes me question what causes seemingly normal people (let's not get into a discussion of normal, okay? This is already going to be too long as it is!) to act in such a manner that the lives of so many others are considered expendable? What turns the normal Eric Harris' and Dylan Klebold's into the frightened/frightening misfits who deemed it reasonable to shoot up their classmates? Is there a little bit of Carrie in all of us?

We all know that kid in school -- the one who just didn't fit in. Maybe it was her clothes, his thick glasses, her family name, whatever. No one wanted to be around that kid. Groans rippled through the classroom when the teacher created groups, everyone hoping they'd be spared being paired with the pariah. "Why?" parents and teachers would ask. "What's wrong with him?" Scuffing the ground, refusing to meet them eye to eye, our answer was always the same. "I don't know... he's just different." In high school the lonely, singled out kids grouped together, forming their own clique. Their newfound solidarity gave them the strength of numbers they had missed out on before and allowed them to isolate themselves even further, despising the masses. In someways I suppose that every group in high school was doing just that -- sorting themselves out according to their differences. And in most cases, an uneasy understanding was met. The geeks, the jocks, the drama club, the band -- all different, yet all coexisting. Practicing tolerance.
Tolerance n.
1. The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.
2. (a) Leeway for variation from a standard. (b)The permissible deviation from a specified value of a structural dimension, often expressed as a percent.
3. The capacity to endure hardship or pain.
4. (a)Physiological resistance to a poison. (b) The capacity to absorb a drug continuously or in large doses without adverse effect; diminution in the response to a drug after prolonged use.
5. (a)Acceptance of a tissue graft or transplant without immunological rejection. (b)Unresponsiveness to an antigen that normally produces an immunological reaction.
6. The ability of an organism to resist or survive infection by a parasitic or pathogenic organism.
As I hear the word "tolerance" being bandied about so frequently, I was curious as to it's actual meaning. In a nutshell, tolerance is the ability to coexist with differences. Tolerance is not synonymous with complacency. Tolerance does not necessitate that our own beliefs, practices and customs be tossed out to be replaced by the beliefs, practices and customs of others. Tolerance allows for differences -- in medicine, tolerance allows for the donation of an organ from one person to save the life of another. Definitely different DNA, likely different families, possibly different backgrounds, favorite foods, religions, but one dramatic conclusion -- continued existence. Tolerance is the act of setting aside preconceived notions to give plausibility to another perspective. To look at something/someone from another point of view. To walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Tolerance, as opposed to arrogance, allows for the possibility that there may be more than "one right way". And, it brings with it the necessity to be vigilant. To keep ourselves informed and educated so that when we are faced with new ideas, new practices, new beliefs, we are able to sort through the stalks and hulls of superstition and ignorance, extracting the golden grains of truth. By it's very nature, tolerance eliminates isolation. The same isolation that causes seemingly normal people to draw further and further in, surrounding themselves with only those like them, spawning an atmosphere of distrust and disbelief. An atmosphere marked by differences. An atmosphere in which the different are expendable.

But I'm still left with the question: How do I raise a compassionate child without leaving him open to be taken advantage of? How do I set an example that will show him the value of ALL human life while at the same time teaching him that it is okay to stand up for what he believes in? How do I teach him to be tolerant? I don't know. Chances are that by the time I figure it out, he'll be on his own, living his own life, "instinctively" reacting based in part on the example that I inadvertently set through my own actions. My hope is that he will live a life of tolerance and that he will be surrounded by others who are tolerant. That he will not be ostracized, imprisoned, or terrorized for his beliefs, whether he embraces Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or homosexuality. That, should he ever have the misfortune to be in the same position as the man that I passed by, Karma won't jump up and bite him in the butt for my actions. Because, no matter what, he will always be my little baby and I hope, no, I pray that someone will be able to look past their own insecurities and fear of differences to give my little boy a hand, a hug, and a smile and help him lift his t-shirt over his head. I'm so sorry I wasn't that person.



Lenka said...

Because of this,

I think...
I wonder...
I cry...
I whole-heartedly agree...
I disagree...
I question...
I weep...
I laugh...
I love...
I hope...

but mostly I PRAY, and I hold on with every fiber of my being to the instinctual, inate, very- center-of-my-soul, faith that God in his infinate wisdom, mercy and power, will continue to control this helter-skelter, topsy-turvy world in which we exist, and that in the end, everything will be as it should be.

The fact that you noticed, and that you wondered and worried, in a sense is action enough, because it means that there are still people with a conscience who have not completely caved in to the abyss that is the current "me world". When the time comes again, and it will, you may react differently based on the situation at hand, or you may not, but consider yourself blessed to be one of those who "feels". You are not alone, your experience has been shared in one form or another, by many people,I'm sure, but specificall by me and I feel for you.

Thanks for this one.

More later if you can stand it!!

Luv ya so much!!

Amy Jo said...

No words can explain how I'm feeling right now...

I can say one thing: I'm lucky to count you as a friend.

Now I'm not going to get any cleaning done. Too much to think about!

Valerie & Quang said...

Wow. I really have nothing to say. Thank you so very much for writing that, it is very thought provoking.