I read this right after I adjusted the curtain to keep this morning’s sun from blinding me. After reading it, I thought what if we could draw the curtain to see in rather than out? What if we purposefully, slowly, mindfully and without judgment opened our eyes to see others as they hope for us to see them? What a lovely thought.
We are always told to “Put yourself in their shoes” or “Walk a mile in their shoes” or some other iteration. And I have tried over the years to do just that. I recall sitting in court at 26th and California, listening to the public defender plea with the judge or jury as a death penalty was considered and begging for forgiveness. Those moments almost always made me think about how we choose our paths, and ultimately how our environments contribute to our behavior.
On Christmas night, I shared dinner with a friend and her daughter. It was a simple meal, Shepherd’s pie, but our conversation was anything but. It ranged from religion to race, marriage, divorce, online dating, first kisses, aging parents, recipes, and the bitter cold. Talking about religion and the grandeur of the traditions of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, I eventually honed in on my parish and the block where I grew up, St. Thomas More and 80th and Francisco: My environment was rooted in my block which was the heart of my community, my church was connected to my school, and my parish, ward, and city were all lumped into one. We had 65 kids on our block, including three sets of twins, 70% of the children attended St. Thomas More, and I can’t think of any family that didn’t attend the church. When people think of a close-knit community, ours was that. It’s closeness ended, rather abruptly, scorched by the hand of the city’s violence, which led me to talk about white flight and the tug of war between races, that kept the populations moving south from the Back of the Yards, from parish to parish, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and eventually from city to suburb. My friend’s daughter stopped me and thanked me. She’d only read academic arguments about broken windows and poverty on the South Side of Chicago. And while not dismissing the validity of the academics writings and how environment does influence us, she told me she was grateful to listen and to understand my perspective and experience. How little she knew of the confluence of Irish power and politics, the Black Belt, lace curtain Irish, unions, public housing, block-busting, the church, bricks, and fear-mongering and how they all played out generation after generation, being rinsed and repeated as if shampooing one’s hair.
Violence acutely pierced my sense of safety and security, when I awoke one morning to our dog incessantly and unapologetically barking at a very real and deadly threat just beyond the backyard’s fence. The crime, however, didn’t ensure my fate. Instead, all of those events, from generation to generation, now playing out on my street, in my alley, all of them combined gave me pause. I forced myself to consider would I rinse and repeat a perspective that would sooner assume all people of a different skin color were lesser people than I? Or could I, did I want to, in spite of my environment, truly want to think differently. The question before me was: Do I believe that we are all created equal?
Like the judge and jury, weighing how a defendant’s environment contributed to his or her criminal conviction, I too had to make a choice. I chose not to rinse and repeat. It is a choice that forces me to religiously attempt to understand others. It’s not easy, nor am I perfect at it. I judge people daily, because it’s human, though it’s not Christ-like. And that’s where the real example of understanding, of empathy, and of love comes from. It’s what Christianity and being a good person is about, to treat others as you want to be treated and to do that you need to at least attempt to imagine what it means to walk in their shoes.
When people say gays shouldn’t marry, and conservatives are evil, and liberals suck, and every person who doesn’t have blond hair and blue eyes should be thrown out of the country, I shake my head. Jesus didn’t banish the lepers or prostitutes. He embraced them. He prayed on them. He loved them. He saw their goodness. He looked inside of them and saw them as they wanted to be seen. Which brings me back to the lovely thought, as the unknown author ended the poem: We would love each other better if we only understood.