September 25, 2005
YOU BE ME, I'LL BE YOU
One of the things that distresses me about the way we deal with problems and relationships in America is how relentlessly tunnel-visioned we are. Caught up in our own perception of the world, we are unable, or unwilling, to imagine that it could appear very different to other people.
Even, sometimes, when we ourselves have been those other people.
We adults have all been children, and we've all been teenagers, but there's no way you could tell that from the way we treat our own kids. Most of us knew what it was like to be taunted, bullied, even terrorized, by the coolly contemptuous, bigger, prettier kids. So how did so many of us turn into parents and teachers and principals who shrug and say, "Boys will be boys," or "they have to learn to stand up for themselves." How did so many of us manage to slide right out from under any adult responsibility for protecting the victims and holding the bullies to account?
We knew what it was like to be mystified by what was happening to our adolescent bodies that were changing in such strange, unaccountable ways and experiencing urges we didn't understand. Nonetheless, some of us grew up to be adults who demand that libraries not stock books or link to web sites that give teens honest, medically accurate explanations of sexuality.
It's even harder for us to remember our pre-literate infancy, which may explain why some parents fail to establish regular, predictable routines for their babies. They don't understand that children are not born with a sense of time, that if they wake up in the morning and have no idea what's going to happen when, their world is frighteningly random and unpredictable. Children come into the world with a need to figure out how it works, understand the rules, and master them. If there are no rules, they have no hope that they will ever be able to control what happens to them.
Some adults got a hint of how that might feel when they fled from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Whether stuck in a shelter or an endless traffic jam, they were for all intents children again, with no control over their lives. They didn't know who if anybody was in charge, what the official plans for them were, and when their ordeal would end. Over time their overwhelming feelings of helplessness turned to anger. Had they thought about it, they might have said to themselves, "Now I know why my children have tantrums when they have no idea what's going on."
I believe that same failure of imagination shows itself in many of our solutions to problems. Take the demand for prayer in school. Don't even worry for the moment about the constitutional issue of religion being imposed on individuals by an agent of the government, or about whether the majority has the right to impose thoughts and beliefs on the minority. Instead, try seeing yourself as a member of that minority. Picture how you as a practicing Christian would feel if your children were forced by schools your taxes support to listen to Muslim prayers you don't believe in.
The failure of imagination also shows itself in whether we even agree that there IS a problem. The majority of us who are rarely stopped by police don't quite believe that some law-abiding drivers ARE routinely stopped by police, and that almost all of those drivers are black or Hispanic. Picture yourself being stopped, for no good reason, for the 10th or 15th or 50th time, ordered out of your car, treated as a probable criminal. Are you still seeing the world as an even playing field where the only thing that matters is how you conduct yourself? Picture your children watching as this happens. Do you still expect those children to think of policemen as Officer Friendly and run to them for help?
In cities where a sizable percentage of the population is made up of immigrants, libraries generally respond by offering classes in English and by providing collections in the immigrants' native languages. Some people have complained about those foreign language collections, on the grounds that foreigners who come here should learn to speak English, and the library should not encourage them to separate themselves linguistically. If these protesters could imagine themselves as immigrants -- maybe their own ancestors -- perhaps they'd feel how scary it can be to live in a country whose language and way of life they don't understand. Perhaps they'd realize that, even if they've learned enough English to get by, it's still their own language that gives them comfort, their own language where they can be themselves instead of playing a role. And maybe they would come to feel that a library that serves everybody in its community, including its immigrants, should provide the comfort of that first language.
Now, I have a viewpoint that's a little unpopular right now: I like the idea that in a large-scale catastrophe, when state and local governments are overwhelmed, the federal government should mobilize and coordinate the expertise of all its agencies -- the military, the Corps of Engineers, the Centers for Disease Control, etc. -- to assist the victims. As one who's lived through Mississippi floods in 1993, I even know the government HAS done that, quite well, when FEMA was led by a highly competent, experienced emergency manager.
But I can imagine myself in the place of the survivors of Katrina and Rita, who, with no functioning electricity, phone lines or cell phone towers, are told that the only way to apply for assistance is through the internet or through FEMA's understaffed 1-800 number. I can imagine myself in the place of the mayors who are now educating thousands more schoolchildren than they budgeted for and cannot get money or answers from government agencies. I have no trouble putting myself in the place of frustrated volunteers trying to deliver food, water and medical care to emergency shelters and being turned away by FEMA.
I grew up in city government. My father was a city planner, so the people we knew were city managers, traffic engineers, housing inspectors, judges, teachers -- people who took pride in providing the essential services that make a city livable. I admire good government. But I can put myself in the place of people who say that's not what they're getting.
I can even put myself in the place of people who've concluded that good government is not possible, because they can't recall ever seeing it. I understand them, because I know that when government is functioning smoothly, it's invisible. Citizens take for granted weather forecasts, mail delivery, roads and bridges, emergency medical services, public schools and universities, clean air and water, monthly social security checks, federally funded home mortgages, without ever making the connection that, "Ohhhh, right, I guess that IS government."
The object of these imaginative exercises is not achieving agreement. We don't need to agree with each other. It's healthy for our relationships and for democracy that we have so many different voices and ideas jostling each other for a chance to be heard, and that each one gets a little remixed as we listen to each other.
But we do need to respect each other, because like it or not, we are all in this together. Fixing our relationships and our problems is going to require us to pool our best ideas and talents.
How do we get there? Maybe by trying on somebody else's life for size. Instead of starting with our solutions, we could start with our stories. Let's tell each other about the things that happened to us that brought us to our solutions. If we still don't agree with each other's ideas, at least we'd know our solutions won't be complete unless they take those stories into account.
Worth a try, anyway?
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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