Last Friday evening was a beautiful one. While waiting for a friend to get off work I decided to walk the levee near downtown Baton Rouge. Like most downtown metro areas, BR has performed some major remodeling to beautify this part of the city. However even with the efforts to clean and restore the dirty run down buildings and streets, there is still the presence of the undesirable. Whether you look upon those who have no place to live, or even feel subconscious cultural racism toward those who are not the same heritage or economic class as you – the feeling of being threatened from something other than your comfort is very easy to well against your sense of security.
At a particular spot the scene was awe-inspiring. As the barges navigated down the river you could catch an early glimpse of the sunset beyond the bridge above the port. The mixture of color, engineered structure, horn sounds, and cool breeze was enough to call me to stop and gaze.
While walking to some benches seeking a place to sit and enjoy the scenery, I noticed some other people walking around and a group of guys fishing at the river. Thinking to myself “I won’t be long, hopefully no one will notice me and try to approach.” Not being there a minute, I noticed one of the guys who was fishing start to walk toward the levee. I calmly watched him from the corner of my eye praying “Lord, I want to take in this scene that you so graciously made, don’t inspire that guy to approach me because I really would be uncomfortable.”
Well of course a few seconds after voicing my desire, the guy sees me sitting on the levee and revises his course straight to me. “GREAT, enjoying this is now ruined, and on top of it this guy is probably coming hit me up for money. Do I go back to my truck and leave? Prep to defend myself if he is aggressive?” Immediately my risk manager brain starts planning escape routes and ways to defend myself if this guy comes at me unfavorably.
“HEY, YOU FISH??” he yells while approaching. “Not really, I haven’t been in a long time.” A simple response hoping he’ll walk by. “MAYN I just had a catfish this BIG break my M**F** LINE” while he puts his hand on my waist from the ground to show how large the fish was. By this point I was already in an open position and defense ready if he tried to touch me again, sizing him up and keeping eye on my truck.
He wasn’t homeless, he wasn’t truly threatening me – he was simply a dirty uneducated man that didn’t fit my zone of normal social interaction. But my perception was to feel threatened because this experience was contrary to what I wanted.
He then proceeded to be amazed that I haven’t been fishing in a long time, and started recommending bait to catch the big ones. It wasn’t long before he started spilling his life story about how his cousin was murdered in front of him, his gift for seeing deceased relatives and the messages they tell him, the time he gave a lady $5 and she won $100K at the casino with that bill. The whole time he wouldn’t stand still, and kept walking around me – needless to say it didn’t help my internal posture of defense.
After a thousand MFs and his crazy stories of seeing dead people, he went on his way toward his truck as he shouted “AIGHT MAYN, I’LL CATCH YOU LATAH.” I shouted back “what’s your name?!” . . . he waved back and yelled “CLYDE . . . M**F**!!”
See the thing is we are constantly surrounded by strangers, by people we don’t know or have reason to trust. Something I always make effort to do is learn people’s names when I interact with them, few things are more “personal” than been called by your name. And that right there is I think the trick to breaking our constructed bubbles of social norm. We need to see people as people, not a means to our social security, or competition for economic status, or outsiders to what we say the world should be like.
Before people are poor, uneducated, dirty, or undesirable – they are people. Economic , hygienic, or any form of degraded status does not equate to a degraded status of their humanity. This is the primary reason saints like Mother Teresa, John Bosco, Maximilian Kolbe, and others were so effective in their ministry – because they saw people before poverty.
Later that evening my friend and I attended a social at another friend’s home. My entire demeanor was different. Instead of being on guard, it was easy for me to walk up to a person I never met before to ask their name and lead into personal conversation.
Even at one point one young lady and I conversed about intentionality in gazing into someone’s eyes. While gazing into her beautiful eyes and warm smile it was easy to converse about the positive effects, the intimidation and people shying away, and the necessity for intimacy. About how we all seek the “peace of the interior gaze” from another person. TOB 13:1. To know and be known.
What was different about this situation? I didn’t know anyone other than the friend that brought me. The only difference was my own prejudice.
Having that conversation with that young woman convicted me to reflect and take ownership of the reality, that most of the time, the people we desire the least to offer our peaceful gaze are the ones who may need it the most.
After reflecting on it, I realized that Clyde wasn’t threatening me, he just wanted to give me fishing tips and tell me crazy stories about his life. He needed someone to look at him with peace and listen to what he wanted to share.
Now I don’t recommend going under bridges and gazing intently at people you don’t know, but what is being recommended – don’t dismiss communing with people just because they aren’t in your normal communion.
Pulled from context, but a line from TOB states “through the same words of Genesis 2:23, the new consciousness of the meaning of one’s body. This meaning, one can say, consists in reciprocal enrichment.” TOB 9:5.
In his days prior to being the pontiff, Karol Wojtyla wrote of personalism “Such love is directed in a special way toward other persons, for in them we find an object commensurate with ourselves. True love, the kind of love of others worthy of a human person, is that in which our sensory energies and desires are subordinated to a basic understanding of the true worth of the object of our love.” Person and Community, P. 172-173
So in a nutshell, what is personalism? Acknowledging and affirming the personhood of another. Having respect (etymology to peer, look intently) for their possessed value of being a human person; understanding their personhood not for what they do for you, but for what they are. We are human beings, not human doings.
Now one can say that identity can be based from a person’s actions toward you. You know your father because he does fatherly actions, you know your friend because they perform friendly actions/deeds, you know your teacher because they teach. However the fundamental value comes first in that the actions are inspired from the relationship with the other person. Your father does fatherly things because he is your father, your friend is inspired to do friendly things because they are your friend.
The relationship is where the root of identity lies. Hence our fear of people who are unknown, the reason we do not instantly respect their value, and we do not feel compelled to respond in love as Wojtyla described. We do not have relations with strangers.
What inspired me to ease my composure with Clyde was that he looked me in the eye, he took time to share fishing tips. Even though I didn’t feel it – he took time to love me. Although I didn’t feel safe because of my own prejudice, he treated me like a human being.
So yes, I did feel threatened. Except performing an examination of conscience helped me to realize it wasn’t my safety that was threatened, it was my failure in being moved to love another person.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. John Bosco – Pray for us.
This genre of music may not be everyone’s taste, but at least read the lyrics.