The Kindness Of Strangers
We have spent most of the day in Baton Rouge, doing last-minute Christmas shopping. Home now, at the end of the day, I’m thinking about pretty much the first thing that happened to us on the journey. We were driving south on Highway 61, and were passing some chemical plants in an industrial part of north Baton Rouge when we saw the pick-up truck in front of us pull over on the shoulder. In the next instant, I saw why: a funeral procession was about to pass in the northbound lanes.
I pulled over behind the man in the truck. We are Southern people; we pull over when a funeral passes by. To be honest, I might not have done it if not for that man. I would have turned my headlights on, but would have resisted the impulse to pull over on the shoulder and stop, even though I was raised to do that. I would have said to myself, “It will be enough if I turn my lights on out of respect for the dead, because let’s be honest, we have a lot of shopping to do today.”
That man in that pick-up helped me find my better self. I watched him take his trucker’s cap off as the hearse passed. Can you imagine that? He didn’t even know who it was passing by, but he respected the dead person enough to pull over, and to remove his cap, even though he was sitting in the cab of his pick-up. Julie and I said silent prayers for the dead, and when the last car in the procession passed, we started our journey again, behind the man in the pick-up.
Watching this stranger accelerate in his pick-up and move away from us, I couldn’t help thinking about our intense exchanges here over the Phil Robertson controversy in recent days, and that the only important thing many people in this country would care to know about that man in front of us is his opinion about homosexuality. Given the clues — white man, dirty pick-up, trucker’s cap, Louisiana plates — it’s a safe bet that this man shares Robertson’s opinions about most things. But there he was, showing humanity by stopping his day to honor a man, no doubt a perfect stranger, making his last miles on this earth. He didn’t have to do that. People of my mom and dad’s generation did it, and do it, all the time, but it’s less common today (indeed, many more cars passed us than stopped behind us out of respect for the dead). But that man did it, and because he did it, he reminded me of my own humanity, and what I owed to the dead man (or woman) passing us by, simply because of our shared humanity.
It was the kind of gesture nearly everybody reading this would have been touched by. But hey, maybe the kind and gallant stranger was a gay man and a liberal Democrat. We have them around here. It’s true that for too many of us conservatives, that’s all we would need to know about him to dismiss him as one of Them. The Other. Not worth our time or consideration, except insofar as we can condemn him.
Tonight when I got home, I saw that a reader sent me an e-mail with a link to a Megan McArdle post. The reader commented:
She’s talking about book reviews and the internet’s general tendency toward snark, but this is very applicable to the whole Phil Robertson/GQ tempest. Folks that are hard core on the right or the left are so quick to snark on and attack those on the other side, that they completely miss out human connection. They’re so busy trying to feed their own sense of superiority, that they forget the foundational wisdom of Proverbs. This Duck Dynasty thing is the same business. Phil could have phrased his words better, and the folks demonizing him are so eager to prove how superior they are that they won’t even consider more nuanced views of people like him. Similarly, they’d probably be too busy snarking on the country talk and dress of a preacher like your (Pentecostal? I can’t recall…. his name was James, I think) friend who spoke at his mother’s funeral, whom you wrote of earlier this year.
Anyway, here’s McArdle’s money shot:
But as with our current diet, the more you feast on negativity, the more you start craving it. After all, it’s as easy as popping a frozen pizza in the microwave, and more is always there at the store. So you start spending more of your time looking for reasons to be angry, and things that can be held in contempt, so that you can put on another exhibition of verbal superiority for your audience.
These days, 90 percent of the Internet could be subtitled “here’s another thing to hate.” I have a pet theory about why this is — why so many people spend so much time on the Internet looking to be enraged: Getting mad short-circuits anxiety, particularly anxiety about the economy, and our own eventual deaths. But whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem like a great way to spend whatever time I have left on this planet. Because there’s one thing that I never am when I am busy being hilariously outraged and offended, and that is happy.
Here is a link to a post I wrote earlier this year quoting the sermon my friend James Toney gave at his mother’s grave. James has a high school education. James does not have a lot of money. James is a Pentecostal preacher who spends a lot of time ministering in country black churches (his wife is African-American) around here. He is a white man who was raised poor in Louisiana; he talks like Phil Robertson talks. I can’t speak for him, of course, but I would be shocked if his views on homosexuality were any different from Phil Robertson’s, because that’s what the Bible says. James Toney is a good man, and a real theologian, in the sense that a theologian is someone who knows God. I’m serious. Read that link. I have heard some good sermons in my lifetime, but none as good as that one, and none that taught me what Christianity really means quite like that one did. If you were in trouble, or hurting, I’m telling you that James Toney would be there to hold you up and carry you through, no matter what. Because he is humble, and because Jesus.
You just don’t know people. You think you know people, but you don’t. This is why we all have to be careful passing judgment. I don’t know who that man in the pick-up in front of me today was. I don’t know what he believes about anything. Maybe he beats his wife. Maybe he is a firefighter who runs into burning buildings to save people. Maybe he hates black people. Maybe he is married to a black woman. Maybe he’s gay, maybe he hates gays. Maybe. What I can say for sure is that on this day, he showed me what it means to be a human being. That’s not nothing.