Little Things Add Up

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Today, on the way home from driving my daughter to the dentist, I came to a stop sign. On the much busier cross street, a car was slowing down to make a left turn. The driver came to a near-complete stop, then performed a very gradual turn. As I watched, a large pick-up truck came up the street toward the left-turning car. The left-turner had not cut the pick-up off, but the pick-up, having just come through a school zone, wanted to accelerate quickly. So after the car turned left, the pick-up driver honked.

Again, I’m sitting there at the stop sign. As the driver turns left, we are window to window. The driver was elderly. He looked alarmed and a bit confused why someone was honking at him. I wanted to be able to roll my window down and explain, but the .3 of a second we were within earshot didn’t work for that. So I turned right and followed the truck, which was now far up the street and pulling away. Some little part of my brain that (thankfully) doesn’t run the show suggested catching up to let them know what I thought of their action. Instead, I settled on a blog post.

Truthfully, I saw that honk as a small act of pointless, unprofitable cruelty. Nothing was gained. The turning driver did not retroactively turn any faster. The split-second the pick-up driver “lost” by having to slow down a minuscule fraction–when he wanted to exceed the speed limit sooner–was not regained. I remember specifically from the driver’s instruction manual, the last time I had to retest, that “apprising another driver of their error is not a correct usage for the horn.” That may not be verbatim, but the “apprising of error” made me laugh and stuck with me. This seemed a perfect example.

Recently, I was out playing disc golf. I enjoy playing, but it’s also my substitute for getting to play ultimate until I feel good about breathing in someone else’s face again. If you’ve never picked up a golf disc, I’m great at it. If you play, I’m adequate. But this round, in Rotary Park where a walking path circles the park and intersects with several of the holes, a woman walking with (presumably) her daughter, watched me throw and started cheering for me. “Wow! Amazing! Great job!”

First, the throw wasn’t amazing to me. It was…okay. Second, her first language was definitely not English. Third, that was an absolutely unnecesary act. Most walkers in the park kind of ignore the disc golfers and vice-versa, or, if we’re all being especially nice, we exchange a pleasantry about the weather.

Put another way, that was a Random Act Of Kindness (RAOK). And she didn’t just do it once. It’s a small park. She cheered for me on three different holes. Loudly. Enthusiastically. I had to stop and thank her. One of the throws she cheered about was skubula. But she didn’t know that. It looked impressive to her.

As I walk and drive and disc golf through the world, I’m struck by the contrast–the difference in these teensy interactions. I mention the woman’s speaking a second language because I lived in a country in which people spoke a language that was not my primary and let me tell you, it’s harder to speak up. About anything. You’re constantly second-guessing yourself. She didn’t seem to care. Either I had dazzled her with disc golf skills heretofore unseen or–more likely–she was simply determined to encourage. Just like the man driving the pickup was simply determined to berate.

These are small choices. But I’m not leaving this one at “Which one of these was a neighbor? Go and do likewise.”

I can’t stop thinking about how Blacks, Asians, and Indigenous people in our country experience a different country than I do. As I’ve written before, I’ve never been stopped by the police and wondered if I would die. I feel relatively helpless to change the rampant racism and the rise in racially-motivated hate crimes we’re seeing in our country. But I’m not settling for that feeling. I’m not settling for “Well, I felt bad about it, and I prayed, so…” Nope, I’m not demeaning prayer in the least. I’m praying. And now that I’m praying, God is doing what God does when I pray–moving me to action. Even if that action is merely to share some simple words.

You and I can see clearly the difference between the jackanape who needed to honk at an elderly driver–because he was the most important thing in his world and causing others distress mattered little compared with expressing his frustration–and the walking woman who took a risk to speak up and encourage. Do we use our voice, do we use our time and whatever resources we have at our disposal for good? Or for the other thing?

It’s time to use our voices. When we hear people spouting racist rhetoric, making n—– jokes, or even simple, dismissive comments about people of another race, we choose either to do nothing or to do something. Trust me, our choice makes a difference. No, there may not be anyone in earshot who will feel directly attacked. But the time to speak up is when I hear it, not when it’s spoken to someone it will injur. If I’m understanding my life following Jesus right, it injurs me. In fact, we have the problem. When we talk about bullying at school, we don’t say, “Well, those kids getting bullied really have a problem. I hope they can figure out what to do about it.” No. We address the students doing the bullying. The bullies have the problem and they are causing a problem for the kids they are bullying. So, too, the racists–whose complexions are troublingly similar to my ownhave the problem and are causing the problem for those they target.

In school, we promote anti-bullying compaigns, which include teaching those not being directly bullied to support, speak up, and help create an environment resistant to bullying. I want to speak up like that. Rather than tell myself “Calling this person out on his racist comments won’t change anything, other than turning his aggression on me,” I want to remember, “I’m part of creating an anti-racist environment. Speaking up now contributes to that!”

Never does an anti-bullying campaign (that I’ve heard of) suggest, “The real problem is mentioning bullying. Speaking about it just keeps stirring it up. If we just all ignore it and don’t give it any power, that will prevent any more bullying.” Yeah, bullsomething. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

I’ve never, in my life, had any of my friends who directly experience racism tell me “We just need to stop talking about it and if the media will stop reporting it, it will go away.” You understand? Only people who have not suffered racism firsthand have told me that–and I’ve been told it repeatedly.

This will sound blunt, but I believe it and think it necessary to say: Deciding we don’t want to hear about all the racism problems in our country is, itself, racist. Read King’s quote again. I know, there’s a lot of skubula going on in the world and sometimes, maybe often, our lives are hard. My life is mostly really good but it’s still no picnic being me most days. It’s tempting to just shut it out. But again, if we can accept that those of the race that cause the problem have the problem, while those of a race suffering the problem are on the receiving end of our problem, then you can see how turning away is passively participating in the problem we have.

I have failed at this sometimes and I’m repenting. I’ve groaned or grimaced at jokes or comments when I should have said, “How is that funny?” or “I don’t believe that,” or “please don’t say those things around me or my children.” Having learned that racism is not all-or-nothing, I’m learning to admit, “By not speaking up, I was doing a racism in that moment.” We have some people committed to racist bigotry and white nationalism, but most of us do racisms sometimes. It’s our problem. We need Jesus to convict us and show us how to repent, i.e. turn around and go the other direction.

I don’t think you or I will “solve” the problem of racism with these small actions. Yes, for those thinking it, I know “racism is a problem of the heart and people who act in racist ways need their hearts transformed.” But bullies also need their hearts transformed; in the meantime, we still want to stop them from bullying. By seeking the opportunities to act, to speak, we’ll help create an environment resistant to racism. It makes no sense to wait for the committed racists to stop. It makes even less sense to imagine that if we stop talking about it, they’ll cut it out.

I’m committing to being more like the woman in the park and less like the man in the pick-up, especially in terms of attempting to be anti-racist. Those are small acts, but a world full of one versus a world full of the other is a radically different world. The truth is, we’re all capable of doing either of those at any given moment. This isn’t all-or-nothing, either. I need my heart transformed so that I can see the opportunity to shout encouragement and guard against my impulse to honk “to apprise others of their mistakes.” Confronting others can also be acts of kindness, because kindness is more than just being nice. I need my heart transformed so that I see the opportunity and have the courage to speak up.

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