I’ve been quiet lately.
I can’t get one thing written before another something happens and then I have to sit and think about that, but before I can get my ideas to line up next to words, something else happens. Kap. Tulsa. Star Spangled Banners. Syria. My own backyard. Charlotte.
Today, I found myself in a simple story that summed up some of what I’ve been trying to say. I had a moment in the basement of the hospital that opened my heart to how pervasive racism is in my world.
Part of my job is to share good news. When one employee wants to recognize another for a kind deed or superior service, it’s my privilege to hear those stories and share them with the whole health system. What a delight–I get paid to make sure good people and good work get recognized! I get a front row seat to watch people being their best–the people who are being thanked and the people who are taking a moment to thank others.
Yesterday, I received a recognition note from a nurse up on the floors. She had witnessed a pair of transporters (the people who move patients from one area of the hospital to another) go out of their way to care for a patient. While the patient was being wheeled back to her room from a procedure, she confided that she didn’t have any family nearby who could visit her. Naturally, she was feeling low and lonely. The transporters, a young man and a young woman, decided to cheer her up. They went down to the gift shop and bought her a flower and a balloon, wrote her a kind note of encouragement, and let her know that they cared. The nurse reported that the patient had smiled all day long thanks to their kindness.
Their hearts were filled with love. With the best kind of kindness–kindness to a lonely stranger.
A few hours after I read this gracious story, I walked over to the main hospital to run an errand. As I turned a corner, I almost bumped into a man in black scrubs–the transporter uniform. I glanced at his name tag and saw that it was the same man who had been recognized for great kindness to a lonely patient.
I had knowledge of this man’s heart.
But my first response to him–the first thing I registered–was his body. He is a tall, broad-shouldered, young Black man. He wasn’t carrying a rose with a balloon tied to the vase. He wasn’t even smiling. In the second before I saw his name tag and realized this was the gentle heart of kindness, I saw his skin and his frame and I reacted as I am programmed to do: you are other; are you dangerous? Should I be afraid of you? In less than a second, I was assessing him based on his body.
What I often forget is that he has been programmed to have the same reaction to me. He almost walked into me and probably went through the same assessment: You are not like me? Are you dangerous? Should I be afraid of you? As a middle-aged white woman who has grown up in Georgia, I know that I am the most dangerous thing a young Black man can run into when walking around a corner. Fifty years ago, he could have been lynched if I had walked into him and knocked us both down.
I wanted to apologize to him for not looking where I was going, and all of that history that neither one of us caused but that both of us carry. I wanted him to know that I knew he had a kind and caring heart. To meet his eye. To strike up a conversation. To represent all white people everywhere and prove that I’m not one of the bad ones.
Then again, I wanted to leave him alone to live his own life without my whole internal narrative being projected onto him. Maybe he was just walking down the hall, doing his job, and didn’t need a bleeding heart white woman all up in his space trying to save the world because the world can’t be easy for him right now. Maybe my feelings about his feelings aren’t central to the story? Maybe I should keep walking and do my errand. Just like with my writing these days, I was thinking so many thoughts that I couldn’t find any words. I missed the chance to say, “Hey! I heard about a really nice thing you did! That was cool.”
Instead, he went his way; I went mine.
I walked away thinking, “What must it be like to be him, walking around in this country today? Where no one knows his heart but everyone sees his body? Does he live in genuine fear of people like me because of his body?” Yes, I think.
I guess what I learned today is this: We live afraid of each other because we don’t have a way of seeing the heart that’s walking around in the body. We have to learn to lengthen those seconds that we spend seeing each other. That which is holy in me honors that which is holy in you.
I didn’t have time or words to get there today, but for a moment I imagined what it’s like right now for that gentle heart to live this life, walking around in that body.