I was more than halfway through my walk this morning when it dawned on me that I hadn’t taken any pictures yet. I’d brought my phone-cam along, as I often do, but I’d forgotten to look around for small, exquisite life forms to photograph.
I hadn’t been paying attention.
What I had been doing was obsessing about the Emanuel AME Church shooting. And not really even the shooting itself, but ideas about the shooting. Theories about why it happened, what it said about “our society today,” etc. etc. Instead of praying for nine lost souls – people with lives and loves and whole histories who were brutally murdered – I was playing sociologist/philosopher/Debate Team Captain in my head.
I don’t need to recap this tragedy for you; if you’ve burrowed deep enough into the Internet to find this obscure blog, you’re more than saturated with the details of Charleston’s heartbreak by now.
We were all in a state of shock yesterday morning when we awoke to the news. Shock quickly gave way to intense sorrow and grief… and an outpouring of love and prayer and unity throughout social media. It was beautiful.
Then we got back to business as usual. It took about two or three hours.
In two or three hours we’d taken this staggering, unimaginable human tragedy – the one that had crushed our hearts and brought us to our knees, together – and turned it into a tidy set of “issues” to argue about. We all toddled off to our preferred ideological corners so we could start shaming each other, burnishing our personal worldviews, and fueling our self-righteousness.
My particular brand of self-righteousness is to fancy myself above all that. I’m not. And I wasn’t. And I regret it.
Yesterday afternoon, I was riding in the car with a good friend – somebody I love and respect – and we were listening to NPR. They were replaying Gov. Nikki Haley’s speech at the press conference in Charleston – the one where she broke down in tears. My friend said, “You can tell she’s faking those tears. It’s so obvious.”
I replied, “Oh, no. I saw the press conference. She was clearly devastated and the tears were very real.”
“I don’t believe it,” he said, with disgust. “She’s faking. I can hear it in her voice.”
A feeling of despair settled over me. What could I say? I knew he was wrong – again, I’d seen the press conference – but I also knew I would not change his mind. My friend is a devout progressive, and he can’t stand Nikki Haley. That she is the first woman governor of South Carolina and of Indian descent – two facts that should thrill a good progressive – mean nothing to him in light of her politics. (Or, as he sees it, the shadow of her politics.) The fact that Nikki Haley is a Republican makes it impossible for my friend to imagine her shedding real tears of grief, even over a tragedy of such epic proportions.
I think that’s a tragedy in its own right.
I have lived in the American South all my life. Half a century. I have witnessed glorious progress in the area of racial equality and race relations. We’re not there yet, but despite occasional setbacks – and I will not dishonor what happened at Mother Emanuel, still so fresh and so terrible, by calling it a mere “setback” – I have no reason to believe we won’t continue this progress. I believe what Dr. King said about the arc of history, that it is long and bends toward justice. I have seen the truth of those words in my lifetime. I believe my daughter will live to see the obliteration of racism as we know it.
But there is another kind of prejudice – another kind of hatred – that is on the rise . . . that’s growing by leaps and bounds, becoming more entrenched in our culture every day. I’m talking about the hatred that people hurl at other people, because of politics.
No matter where you come down politically, if you come down hard, you’re likely to read this and think, “Well, that’s because those people are so wrong/stupid/backwards/greedy/evil/misinformed/misguided . . .” or some combination of the above. “Those people must be stopped.”
I’m here to tell you, who ever you are, that I know those people – lots of them – and most of them do not fit your caricature. Because we live in a tribal society –ensconced in media bubbles – it’s possible that you don’t really understand what it is those people value and believe. If you did, you might still disagree with them, strongly even, but I do not believe you would hate them.
I think you’d know their tears were real.
You know that old warning against “missing the forest for the trees”? I don’t think that’s a problem in this age. There are plenty of people out there thinking and talking about the “forest” – about society, the culture, the political scene, the clash of ideologies, the “big picture.” What I think we need, these days, are more people focusing on the trees. Up close and personal. One on one. A tree is a thing of great beauty and worth. No two are the same, though they all have much in common. Notice the trees around you – really look at them, treat them with care – and pretty soon the whole forest is healthier.
Yes, that was a metaphor. A bit heavy-handed, but I couldn’t resist.
Today, we’re trained by our overzealous media and various political leaders to think in these great, sweeping, forest-like paradigms – these “theories of everything.” The problem is . . . they’re not. While politics is important – very important – I fear we’ve made an idol of it. And our idolatry is starting to blind us to our common humanity. And to each other.
It’s getting harder and harder to see the trees for the forest.