“I believe that all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share.” ~ Dalai Lama
I am breaking tradition and using a photograph to start this post because it is such a beautiful, heartbreaking image of the pain and fear that keep us separated. There are only a few inches between the faces of these two men, yet it is a wholly unbridgeable gulf. This is a scene from the streets of Baltimore yesterday, a place of constant tension, trauma and hatred, from which those of us living our quiet, privileged lives in other neighborhoods are usually insulated.
Truth be told, I am still insulated, tracking these events, unfolding mere miles away, via social and traditional media. It’s been fascinating to see how people react when our old cultural stories are so blatantly exposed and people act out and behave in ways that shock us. Many are expressing righteous outrage, as when our mayor called the instigators “thugs,” and questioned their intelligence with this comment: “It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city you’re going to make life better for anybody.”
Or there’s the contingent that cheers for a woman caught on video hitting and cursing at her teenaged son, to get him out of harm’s way. I came across this item in the Washington Post online and was saddened by what seemed to be unquestioning coverage by a respected news outlet. How is it a “positive moment” when a mother treats her son this way? Children in these neighborhoods have grown up traumatized by the constant violence in their lives. This clear view of it, even at the hands of a mother, disturbed me and reveals that the roots of these events go very deep. And yet I am learning that I have much to learn. A friend bears this witness:
“She’s not Mom of the Year. But having grown up in a Black family with generations of Black people, I’m completely conscious of the fact that she’s a mother (even if she’s not his) who is at the breaking point. She’d rather see him beaten and dead by her own hand, than witness him beaten or dead or enslaved at the hand some other American citizen. Because every day, riots or not, she lives with that reality. And so did her mother, and her mother before her, and her mother before her, and her mother before her.”
I thought I was being careful not to judge this woman, while questioning the reporting that seems to celebrate this style of parenting, but if I’m honest, I am ignorant of her world. She’s doing her best in an incredibly stressful situation that I have trouble even imagining and my heart goes out to her and her son, both. This whole situation is one giant “gray area,” which is what life on the threshold between stories is like.
I have a tendency to go straight into “what can we DO about it?” while also feeling strongly that this may be a time of listening and observing for now, and especially reserving judgment and name-calling, something not modeled by our city leaders, unfortunately. As dire as the situation feels. Wendell Berry said it well:
“The most difficult thing is to be patient in an emergency.”
People are already talking about cleaning up and fixing broken glass, sweeping, bundling up bags of trash. As helpful as that is, this is less a hardware problem than one of software. In other words, rebuilding and fixing the physical environment will only take us so far when the people— especially young people—live in a constant day-to-day state of fear and senseless violence. I don’t mean just yesterday. I mean their entire childhoods. It’s tough for many of us to see that and have any idea what to do. The solutions will require us to think differently and act in unusual, possibly counter-intuitive ways. As a city, we cannot just paper over these events. This will take long-term, humble engagement.
The events over the last week have moved us into territory that is beyond our ability to plan our way through. Our familiar roadmaps will not work to bring about the healing that is so clearly needed. We are heading off-road and would do well to prepare for some trekking without maps. I don’t have a clue what that will look like, but fortunately, nature is full of examples of complex, self-organizing systems. How can we create conditions conducive to Life, the way that nature does?
The fact is, this happened. We can argue about the causes, we can point fingers and blame the police or the teens, or say it was instigated by outsiders. And yet, if it causes those of us who knew about the systemic violence and corruption finally to start asking questions, if it causes us to feel compassion for someone who acts out of such hopelessness and despair, then in a way it has accomplished something. Is violence and destruction the answer? Hell no. But it does raise an awful lot of hard and interesting questions.
Back in 2010, an African American friend, Lionel Foster, wrote a column in our local paper called “We Need to Talk.” It inspired me to convene conversations in Baltimore around the topic of how segregated our city is, and I put out some feelers and got a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. Sadly, I didn’t take it very far then. This morning I found a snippet from his article:
“Conversation is not an answer to poverty or violence or segregation, but the understanding it can lead to is a prerequisite to any real solution. You need to talk. I need to listen. Then we’ll switch roles and repeat. I have faith that this can do some good because listening—not just hearing, but giving these pieces of someone else’s life a shelter, even temporarily—is an act of love.”
What better cure for the ignorance identified by the Dalai Lama than getting together with people I’ve never met and listening to their stories? This is a time to play from our strengths for sure, to bring our skills and expertise to bear to help heal and repair our city. It’s also a time to discover that we have strengths we don’t know well and haven’t yet begun to tap. I mean this as a city and also personally.