I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).
When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry
Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop:
First off, I want to thank you. You see, I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately, and I’ve been looking for inspiration. Our ninety-second interaction encapsulated so much of what is wrong with society that I now have writing fodder for days.
And because you don’t know what was going on before our unfortunate encounter — not that you bothered to ask — I thought that I’d fill you in (on the snowball’s chance that you happen upon this post).
I missed a bus. By thirty seconds. That was to take me to an appointment that I have been waiting on for two months. I needed to contact the clinic to let them know I was running late and to see if there was any way they could accommodate me. But I didn’t have the clinic’s phone number. You see — as I’m 99% certain you noticed — I don’t have a smartphone. Because I can’t afford one. I get my phone through the LifeLine program, and it offers no internet capacity.
So I was stuck trying to figure out how to get their number. I tried calling someone who I figured would have the number, but we had multiple issues in getting the correct number to me. And in the middle of all that, I thought to contact directory assistance. If you haven’t used it lately, it’s all automated, and you have to say things very clearly, like “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS MIN-NE-SO-TA” and “MED-I-CAL CLIN-IC”. And as clearly as you’re talking, over the din of the downtown of a major metropolitan area, you can barely understand a word the computerized voice is telling you. You’re just looking like and idiot saying “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS”.
And as I’m doing all this, I’m pacing about. I know, this is verboten in Minneapolis. At a bus stop, you’re supposed to stand still. Well, when it’s below zero out, I move, because moving keeps you warm. And all that pacing may make you look like an idiot. But — unlike everyone else in this town — I don’t complain about the cold.
So, in the middle of all this, the lady standing next to you asked me if I was okay. And I replied — in the foolishly honest manner that I have — that I missed my bus to go to the clinic and that I was having trouble getting their phone number.
And at this point, you engaged me. You told me that my shoe was untied. And I thanked you, but said that I needed to focus on something else right now. Because it was more important that I get hold of the clinic in a timely manner than that I tie my shoe. And, quite frankly, in forty years on this planet, I have never once tripped on my shoelaces.
And then you noticed my coat. And you decided it was not a winter coat. I hate to break it to you, but I was actually warm underneath my coat, probably warmer than you . It has a fitter cut than the enormous parka you were wearing, and so at first glance might appear more appropriate to spring or autumn, but I’m baffled that you didn’t notice how ridiculously thick the fabric is.
And that’s when you told me that I wasn’t dressed for winter. I forget the exact wording, because shortly after this statement, your reasoning spiraled so far out of control that to take down an exact quote from you for this blog was not the first thing on my mind.
Now, here, sir, was your first mistake. Because one would think that if a human being observed another human being underdressed for below-zero weather, and they were engaged in conversation about this very fact, the first thing you should have done was to inquire whether there was anything you or anyone could do to ensure I was more warmly dressed.
(And yes, I said “should”, despite all that liberal-arts public education I’ve had that has told me the word “should” is a bad word. But — and I hate to break it to the academy — this damn relativism has produced an I-can-do-whatever-I-want mentality that is, frankly, screwing society over. I only hope it’s not irrevocably so.)
Now, inexplicably, you decided that my supposedly thin coat made me “crazy”. And that the clinic I was going to must be the “crazy clinic”.
And so, sir, you might have felt quite proud of yourself for your quick-witted jibe. But you know what? Your snide statement only further contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness in our culture — and that stigma leads to people killing themselves, because words like yours make it harder and harder for them to seek the help they need. So, if you notice an infinitesimal smudge of red on your hands tonight, you know where it comes from. Words have consequences.
Now, sir, I don’t know what you thought I was going to do next. Since you had deemed me “crazy”, you might have thought that I would punch you, or rant about the aliens that live under my tinfoil hat. But you seemed to enjoy what I did next.
I’m about to get to the point where I question your upbringing. But, you see, you said “thank you” as I walked off to the next bus stop. You thanked me for removing my allegedly “crazy” self from your almighty presence. And because you have the capacity to say “thank you”, I know that somewhere rattling inside you is some modicum of decency.
So why did you not use that decency at any point within our interaction? You seemed quite proud of your capacity to bully an emotionally distraught person. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone other than yourself to give you an accolade for doing so. Did you honestly think I was going to just stand there and continue to listen to your insults? No, sir, because that would be “crazy”.
I honestly have no idea what your story is — because, from the outset, you ensured that we would never have a chance to exchange stories. Oftentimes, when people act as you did today, when they have the hopelessly wrong notion that some human beings are ontologically superior to other human beings (and of course, they usually see themselves in the former group), I assume that their parents must have somehow inculcated that idea in their heads early on.
This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification (but you were in the mood for oversimplification today, weren’t you?). The majority parents do the best they can, there are societal pressures that undermine good parenting, and some kids just grow up in defiance of their good upbringing.
And yet, I’ve also seen bad parenting in action. See, one of the great many things you don’t know about me is that I spent several years of my career working with families, and I saw all the good attitudes and the bad attitudes that parents pass on to their children. And, frankly, it’s the kids who are being brought up with the bad attitudes that make me nervous for humanity’s continued survival.
But regardless of where nature and nurture fall in this equation, at some point, we all grow up. We become adults. And, for the vast majority of us — with the possible exception of those whom you might erase with the word “crazy” — we become responsible for ourselves. We have to take stock in our lives, and if there was some poor nurturing, whatever the source, that wove its way into our history, we have to take responsibility to unweave it.
You looked to be about fifty. About time you grew up.
I hope that I just caught you on a really bad day. When I was working with families, I was taught to always assume that bad behavior was merely indicative of a “bad day” and not of a larger pattern — even when I saw the same bad behavior from the same people day after day. I hope that whatever got stuck in your craw worked its way out and that you had a good day.
If this is not the case, if your behavior today is the norm for you, then I hope that you’re not a parent. I hope that you haven’t raised your children to believe that your behavior — so utterly lacking in grace, compassion, and the most rudimentary elements of humanity — is somehow socially acceptable. And if that is how they were raised, then, by all that is good and just, I hope that they have taken up the responsibility to undo those lessons.
You see, I don’t get the privilege to be a parent. The best I can hope for is to admonish every person I come across to raise their children to be loving and kind and compassionate. See, I’m committed to making the world a better place, and that means doing everything I can to undo the consequences of the sort of behavior I saw in you today.
You were astonished at my behavior today, though I fail to see how I did much of anything that was beyond the pale, other than that I didn’t exhibit the icy unflappability that is considered the greatest Minnesota virtue.
Well, guess what? When I crossed Hennepin Avenue, getting hold of my acquaintance once again to finally get the correct phone number, I shared my amazement and befuddlement at how a grown man saw fit to run off another man from a bus stop.
Some would say your actions were “crazy”. But I’m not going to erase you with that word. I’m just going to hope for good things for you.
You surprised me, because somewhere in my head, I have this notion rattling around to assume good things of people.
And I guess we’re not yet to the point where I can make those assumptions about everyone.
But, I tell you, I’m going to do my damnedest to work for a world where we can one day.
Peace to you,
PS Since you didn’t ask exactly where I was going, and only assumed: I was going to a dental clinic, not a “crazy clinic”. And they were able to fit me in when another patient didn’t show. And now I have a nice smile — one that you can never take away.
Originally published here in March 2011, though this version has been thoroughly proofread and edited. The original was dashed off in a hurry, so I hope this revision demonstrates my editing abilities, if nothing else.
Human beings today seem to communicate primarily in two ways. We either share personal narrative, or we “debate”–though it does not merit the name. True debate is measured, calm, well-researched, and deliberate. What we have instead, coming from all sides, are name-calling, belittlement, anger, resentment, hatred, malice, insults, and every curse of hellish fate you can imagine.
These “debates” develop as we lose sight of our mutual humanity. We do this by mentally converting fellow human beings into labels, into abstractions. We call each other “liberal”, “conservative”, “gay”, “straight”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, “American”, “Chinese”, on and on it goes.
It is easy to go to war against an abstraction (why do you think they call them “casualties” and “collateral damage”, rather than “deaths”?), to oppress an abstraction, to abuse the rights of an abstraction. An abstraction does not share your breath and your DNA and your heartbeat. And if we behave as if the world consists of nothing but groups of abstractions, a “them”, and a small number that we call “us”, there’s nothing that to keep us from blowing “them” to smithereens. We should just drop the nukes and call it a day.
However, it does not have to be this way.
We may well be hardwired to think of each other in terms of our differences rather than our similarities. But we also have amazing minds that often transcend their wiring. What if we stretch our minds beyond the capacity to label? If our differences, and the way we use them to dehumanise each other, are speeding the destruction of our species, what are our similarities, and how might those similarities save us?
It’s not our genetics (for example, not all human beings have 46 chromosomes). It’s not our physical composition. It’s certainly not the way we look, dress, think, or believe. The one thing that all human beings share is Story.
By Story, I mean the personal narrative that each of us carries. It is the unique path that has brought us to where we are. It is the tale of our triumphs and tragedies, events both momentous and mundane, the things that shaped our decisions, beliefs, and character. Not only is Story the only thing that we all share, but, in a very real sense, it is the only thing that any of us has. You can lose your job, your home, your possessions, your family and friends, you can lose absolutely everything–but no-one and nothing can take away your Story.
So, if focussing on our differences hastens the destruction of our species, would focussing on the commonality of Story save it? First off, it is very easy for me to share my Story with someone who closely identifies with me–who shares my labels. The trick–for all of us–is to learn to transcend our boundaries in our sharing, to share with those who don’t share our labels, and to start seeing each other in terms of one label only: fellow human beings.
In this spirit, I am working hard not to engage in debate but to share Story. And I fail. A lot. But to keep trying in hopes of success is all I can do. And I know that I can’t force anyone to share their Story with me. But what I do know is that I’m not responsible for what others do, only what I do. And if I have the option of choosing actions that can make the world a worse place or a better place, I choose the latter.