My two young boys and I were sitting at a stop light on Elm Avenue patiently waiting to get on Interstate 581. Up ahead, a man stood on the concrete divider holding a sign that said, “homeless and hungry.” I prepared myself for the non-encounter. The same scene has unfolded hundreds of times in my life so I went into autopilot.
I shut out the figure approaching. I steeled my heart. I looked straight ahead. I contemplated locking my car doors.
Jackson noticed the man and asked, “Mommy, why is that man holding a sign?” I gave my best non-answer, “I’m not sure, baby.”
We continued to wait while he slowly walked closer.
Soon the light turned green and the cars in front of me began to move. The homeless man was right beside our vehicle by now; just as I gently pressed the gas pedal, Parker yelled out his open window, “Hey, man,” just like he was calling to a friend. There was no fear in his voice. No steeling his heart. No avoidance of eye contact. It was one human acknowledging the presence of another human. Parker’s blue eyes saw what I had missed. He saw humanity first.
I thought about this moment long past our drive home. I thought about how we each can be defined by various labels, how we sometimes build walls with our categories, and how we often fail to acknowledge humanity first and foremost. Countless labels strolled through my mind.
She’s a Democrat.
There are bits of truth in each label as we often identify with certain ideals, beliefs, and groups. But sometimes, the labels drive us away from each other – they uncover quiet seeds of fear or mistrust. They divide the world into “us” and “them.” However, when we shed our labels, we are merely human. Underneath each label there is only “us.” We must dare to dive below the surface, to faithfully cross boundaries. In walking toward humanity we discover hearts and souls akin to our own.
Sometimes, the division between us is so vast and deep, it seems impossible we will ever find our way toward recognizing humanity first. Each day we are constantly reminded of our physical, social, religious, economic, and political differences. How will we ever truly connect with each other through this exhausting maze of conflicting labels?
But then I remember Parker in the backseat. I wonder if maybe it’s not as difficult as it seems. Maybe all of us have the capacity to know each other better. Maybe it is as simple as we make it. Maybe it starts with a grin, or a nod, or the wave of a hand as we call forth to another soul, “Hey, man!” Maybe that is the spark that ignites the flame that builds connection.
May our eyes meet and connect.
May our voices speak and connect.
May our hearts draw close and connect.
May our souls be brave enough to know each other well.
Beyond labels. Beyond fear.
“When we get close to each other, we stop being afraid. It’s just the way of things. Fear can’t survive proximity.” Glennon Doyle Melton