Saturday, March 3, 2007

Learning not to bite

Earlier this afternoon I read an essay by field negro at My Left Wing. He was reflecting after attending the viewing of a dear friend's father, and at the end of the post, he writes:

It was so weird being in that packed room with all those people and family members coming to pay their respects. Respects to a man who had stayed with his wife, raised his family, and kept his roots in his community and contributed to the well being of his city. This is one reason I suspect that he disliked my people, because he thought that we were the very antithesis of what he represented. But if the poor guy had taken the time to try, he would have seen that there are many black grandfathers all over the city who are just like him. Who, if he had reached out like his son had, probably would have been able to change his thinking and his heart.

So I spent some time turning this over in my head. I was already thinking about race after having watched the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright talk about the theology of Black liberation. And that led to thinking about empathy, perspective, and why we humans are so intent on being crappy to each other.

I was also thinking about the eye for an eye verse from the Bible, and how it means only one eye for one eye.
Throughout the world today, and throughout the long history of humanity, the dominant tradition has never been one of trying to fit the punishment to the crime, much less has it involved the notion of rehabilitating the offender. The dominant approach has always been one of allowing the officials to exercise their unlimited desire for vengeance and retribution.
Justice was conducted on the basis of blood feuds. Retribution knew no limits. Typical of this ancient mentality was the speech of Lamech who boasted to his many wives: “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain was avenged 7-fold, then I am avenged 77-fold!” [Gen. 4:23f.]

We do have a tendency to go overboard, don't we? But why do we hate, and why do choose to do things that are hurtful, either physically or emotionally?

I'm sure there are a number of answers, but at least in part, hate usually comes from fear and ignorance. And we hurt people (whether with fists, words, or weapons) when we are hurting--or when we are anticipating being hurt. But another part of it is that we lack empathy. Or, conversely, we often find it easier to behave humanely toward one another, and insist on justice for others, when we are capable of feeling each other's pain.

Which brings me to the title of this post, "Learning not to bite". While I was thinking of all the things I mentioned above, I thought to myself, "What would it be like if we could arrange it so that every time someone said something hurtful to someone else, they would automatically feel the pain they caused?"

And that reminded me of something I read in parenting books and advice columns when our kids were little. Someone would ask, "I've been told that, when my toddler bites me, I should bite him/her back to show what it feels like--is that a good idea?" The answer, of course, is no, but one specific suggestion I recall is the little one prepares to chomp, do a little sleight of hand that results in the child biting his or her own arm. This would cause the child in a very literal way to "feel someone else's pain". Of course, at that pre-verbal stage, I'm sure they aren't thinking that way. It's probably more like, "It hurts when I do this--so I won't do it any more."

As we get older, though, we become more capable of reflecting on what someone else might be feeling. That doesn't mean we always do. But we're can, if we're intentional about it. And field negro's post reminded me of one of my own "Aha!" moments, when he mentioned being the only Black person at the viewing. I thought back to one of the first times I rode the bus with Demetrius to the south side of Chicago to visit his Mom. At some point, I realized that I was the only White person on the bus, and that was an odd, uncomfortable feeling for me. I'd never been in a situation like that before, where I was the only one "of my kind". And I've only had a handful of similar experiences since then.

Much more often, Demetrius will be the only Black person when we go somewhere. The only time I remember us specifically noticing and remarking about it out loud was when we attended a Monkees reunion concert, and it was a rather amusing realization at the time. But at other moments, I've wondered what that would be like spending much of my life in situations where I am the exception rather than the norm. And I realize that those of us who are in the majority tend to take it for granted that "that's the way it's supposed to be".