Digital imaging & magic:  H.J. McEnroe

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
                                                                               Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities,
We live in extraordinary times.  The collision of polar opposites and conflicting forces that paint the landscape of American political and social discourse permeates our existence in ways every bit as profound as those that created the conditions for chaos and conflict during the French Revolutionary War. 
If someone had tried to convince you in 2009 of the possibility of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States, would you not have thought it a preposterous notion?  Yet, only four years prior – in 2005 – would the likelihood of a Barack Obama presidency not also have seemed equally remote, far-fetched…?
Do not these two reference points – regardless your political persuasion – represent the incongruous confluence of extreme, polar opposites?

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, our summer of Covid-19 confinement has been transformed from family picnics and reunions, ballparks and vacations, into isolation, divisions and crises…images of anonymous police-state forces and protests that brew into violence.  The slogan, “I can’t breathe,” echoes in our cities’ streets…a desperate cry for help against overly-aggressive police tactics…while in the midst of tragic loss of life to a pandemic virus that is an unrepentant killer.
And yet…in the face of such despair, these trying times have produced other images:  healthcare workers laboring heroically in grueling conditions to save patients stricken by the disease; images of shoppers with masks, giving up their places in line to disabled people for whom the very act of shopping, itself, comes at the potential cost of their lives; service industry workers, postal carriers, etcetera, all laboring at lower-paying jobs to make life more bearable for all of us.
A few weeks ago, I returned a package to a UPS store for recycling.  The package contained many tiny aluminum coffee pods.  Exiting my car, the bag broke, scattering these pesky little aluminum pods all over the driveway of the UPS site.  On my hands and knees, picking them up, I’m suddenly approached by a young man who simply says, “Hi…may I help?” and immediately dropped to his knees, helping scoop up these little pods, returning them to the bag.  He not only cut my work in half, he then asked if he could take the bag into the store for me.  He couldn’t have been more than 20-years-old – the most kind and gracious person I met that day…and he was black.  To observe us both was a study in visual contrast:  an older white man with short hair being helped by a young black man with dreadlocks…
…and in that moment, I could not have received a more Christlike gesture of kindness and humanity.  In my winter of despair, I was greeted by a new spring of hope.  Indeed, he blessed me.  Then, he went on his way.
As I looked at him again, I was reminded of the biases and presuppositions that tend to inform our responses to people who are “other” than us.  Reflecting upon this young man, I wondered about his parents, who raised such an intelligent, thoughtful and kind person.  Being a father myself, I also pondered what it must have been like to raise this young man; and I reflected on how – despite the challenges of raising a daughter – I was lucky that she, at least, is Caucasian.  What fearsome worries his mother and father must still endure every time he walks out the door as a young black man in America.  Indeed, if I am honest, I must admit that I’ve never had to grapple with that worry.  In the America of today, I would not want to be the father of a young, black teenager, knowing the biases they face in society…simply for being.  That, dear reader, is a sorry reflection upon our times – and our automatic tendencies, black and white, yellow and brown, to fear the “other.”
On the flip side, our fellow black Americans have pushed back, and pushed back hard.  A couple years ago, at a political rally, Bernie Sanders was presented with the concerted chants and signs of “Black Lives Matter.”  His response was, “ALL lives matter.”  The crowd’s reaction to Bernie’s innocent observation:  a resounding rebuke, castigating him for that political faux pas.  Really…?
The reality, I humbly submit, is this:  We are a nation of immigrants…yes – some of us forcibly so, brutally so, through the enslavement of our ancestors.  That is a part – a shameful, awful part – of our complex history.  Nonetheless, our ancestors – unless we are Native to the Americas – came from other shores.  We are ALL on this journey of pilgrims.  But now, many of our prior notions of “America” are being challenged.  Dystopian images of unidentified, uniformed, anonymous jack-booted thugs in battle gear, attacking peaceful protestors on our cities’ streets – these are also images with which we must struggle to find our way through our leaders’ failings to answer people crying for justice…crying for relief from a pandemic…crying. 
Are we NOT better than this?  Should we not demand better from our police, without resorting to the extreme notion of abolishing police?  Must we focus on our differences rather than our common interests?  Do not all of us – regardless of race and economic inequality – love our children? 
I humbly submit that the answers to these questions, and more, begins by…breathing; that we all MUST consciously breathe…and begin to look out better for one another.  Therefore, let us love one another’s children as our own.  Let us share the air, water and other resources of this planet – our only home – for the sake of all our children, and their children. Let us approach one another, especially those who appear different from us, and calmly seek to understand…before seeking to be understood. 
Breathing isn’t only an exercise in intake…rather, it is also the act of expelling the toxic nature of our current path.  Stop framing ourselves as Irish-American, African-American, Asian-American, etc.  In America, we become “American.”  That is the one distinguishing factor of America that has enabled the “angels of our better nature,” in our darkest times, to step up, speak out, and demand better of OURSELVES.  And if we truly seek change in our body politic, then let’s begin by being the change we seek:  vote!
Indeed, we live in extraordinary times.  It may seem – in our current public discourse and political strife – like “the best of times and the worst of times.”  But we have come through dark times before.  It is the unique characteristic of humans that – only when we seem at our most desperate, in darkest moments – we are capable of rising to our highest humanity.  For that reason, it is now, more than ever, our calling by a God of no color – and ALL colors – to become our brothers’ keeper…and to breathe.

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