As Hurricane Irma struck St. Thomas this year, the staff of a small nursing home worked furiously to prepare the dozen tenants in residence. In spite the staff’s heroic efforts, however, the building soon shuddered beneath the storm’s fury.
Water began rising inside, the building’s doors were sucked away, and the rooftop eventually went airborne altogether. Left without electricity, communications, clear roadways, or means of evacuation, both workers and patients were left largely unprotected.
Then, four teenage boys arrived to help: Detainees of a juvenile detention center located next door. The boys quickly began moving the non-ambulatory out of the flooded portions of the building and they sheltered their elders with their own bodies, keeping glass and ceiling tiles from falling on them.
When the storm had passed, the young men continued to sit in the dark, comforting and holding the hands of the residents. Kimberly Born-Verneck, director of the detention center, was moved to tears as she told their story, as she was so proud of these boys “who had been written off” by most. They were good neighbors, showing activated compassion, when the time demanded it.
I suppose we sell most people short these days, categorizing them as quickly as we meet them, if not before. It’s contrary to what Sly Stone sang all those years ago: “Love me; hate me; know me and then; you can’t figure out the bag I’m in.” But we figure out the bag immediately, and if others aren’t in our tribe, we stuff them away without them giving a chance.
Politics. Religion. Ethnicity. Skin color. Nationalism. Economics. The lines of demarcation are many. And within these broader categories, there are countless micro-divisions, as zealotry guts our society of decency. Today, people are so polarized, so fixated in their opinions, that we would rather support an absolute philistine if he is “one of our own,” than cooperate with others of goodwill who are outside our ideological comfort zone.
We retreat into ungrounded fears instead of seeking to understand those whom we have judged as inferior. We so prefer our insular view of the world, that we cannot bring ourselves to extend or accept common kindness from those we have “written off,” even when these are the very ones who could help us.
The reasons for much of this separatist behavior can be traced to the isolation that comes from our technologies; from the sectarian, tribal splintering that runs parallel with an ever-shrinking world. But I cannot overlook a proverb by Jesus, a single mandate that could go a long way in restoring civility, common sense, kindness – just needful conversation – to our society.
He said, golden words many of us were taught as children, “Do to others as you would like them to do to you.” Is this the answer – simple as it is – to all our division, animus, and rancor? No, I’m not so naive, but it would be a good place to start, and the times demand it.