My heart is heavy for Paris and Beirut today. It has been heavy for Syria and her refugees for a long time. I want to drop everything and fly to Germany and the refugee camps and help people, somehow, I don’t know how. I want to do something. Of course, as I told my friend the other day, I would be next to useless there. I would be overwhelmed and I would have a migraine all the time and just need to lie down. In fact, I did drop everything, sixteen years ago when I was in seminary, and flew to Croatia to help the seminary students who were working with refugees from the Bosnian War. But when I got there, it turned out the students had all left for the summer. I spent a month doing paperwork and cleaning for the seminary instead. I also went to Turkey that summer after the earthquake (though that was unplanned), and five years later to Morocco to try to help out some midwives there who were saving premature babies. I was pretty much useless in both those places, though it was fascinating and humbling to see how people responded to the presence of an American. The Turks, bleeding and shaking in makeshift tents next to the rubble of their homes thanked me for being there, as if America itself had come to their aid. But I had no medical knowledge, no training, nothing really to offer them.
So going over there, to Europe or the Middle East, is not really how I personally can best help. But I believe I can, and each of you reading this can, too. I believe that there are people all around us who have the potential for great works of love or great acts of destruction, and our presence in their lives could make the difference in which of these they choose. And I believe that it’s not necessarily great acts of altruism that make that difference, but the small things we do each day, how we choose to look upon people and respond to them, whether we choose to respond to anger with anger, or to do the hardest thing and offer gentleness in exchange.
What if we looked at every person who gave us an angry look, who cut us off in traffic, who interrupted us in a meeting, who spread rumors about us in the office, as a potential mass shooter, as a potential suicide bomber? And what if our gentle response to their anger made them stop and reconsider? What if the person who honked and yelled at me yesterday because I wasn’t pulling out of the parking space they were waiting for was on the brink of snapping, but if I smiled and rolled down my window and looked him in the eye I could have given him another day of peace, another chance to find hope? Instead, I got stubborn and passive-aggressive, and took another minute to adjust the heat and the radio settings before I pulled out. And even then, driving away, I felt anger washing over me. I wished I had stayed longer, I wished I had turned off the car and kept him waiting, claiming my space and my rights, even though the kids were hungry and tired and needed to get home for lunch and a nap. Driving away, I suddenly felt so angry and such a sense of injustice that tears came to my eyes.
Where does anger like that come from? It usually happens to me in the car. People are just awful to each other in their cars here in Boston. I think it is because we can’t really see each other. We don’t look each other in the eye, we just see a two thousand pound metal vehicle. We don’t have the subtlety of expression, we can’t tell if the other person looks sad or scared, all we have are blinkers and horns to try to communicate our opinions and feelings. We don’t know that the person who just cut us off was up all night with a sick toddler and had to go to a job they hate even though they are also sick. We don’t know that the person tailgating us is getting old and having trouble telling how close she is. All our empathy and compassion is reduced to a single feeling of right and wrong, justice and injustice, getting our way and making sure the other person knows it. I am such a kind person, usually, when I am face to face with people. At least, I remember to try. But in the car it is different.
And so I try to remember, and to love people with my driving. To smile and wave and say thank you when people let me go, even though I know they can’t hear me. To let people go in front of me, even if I technically have the right of way. That’s the other thing about driving in Boston — the city wasn’t designed by architects, it evolved haphazardly and inconsistently. So while in other cities there is some kind of structure and order, and you turn when the lights tell you to turn, in Boston there are many places where it’s just never your turn to go. If we didn’t stop and let each other go, we’d never get anywhere. And generally you know when you are waiting to turn that someone, eventually, will notice you and let you out. We depend on it, or none of us would ever get anywhere. People are kind to each other here, too.
One morning this past June the kids I nanny hadn’t been napping well but they all fell asleep in the car, so I decided to just drive around for an hour to give them a solid rest. They live near an intersection on the border of Roslindale and West Roxbury, and I drove through that intersection about three or four times in that hour, looping around to find places to drive without getting too far from home in case they woke up. There were a lot of police cars and ambulances there, and I wondered what had happened. It wasn’t until I got home from work that evening and turned on the news that I saw that a potential terrorist had been shot and killed there by the police. It was just fifty yards or so from where the kids and I had passed several times that morning. Half a mile from their house. About a mile from mine.
There is not much I can do right now for the Syrian refugees, shivering in tents on concrete floors as the cold weather sets in. There’s not much I can do for the families of the victims of the shootings in Paris and Beirut. But I can smile and wave and let people go ahead of me in traffic. I can humanize the driver in the car that cut me off and extend compassion to him or her. And I can get out of my car, and off of the internet — another closed-in vehicle that keeps me from really seeing the person I am interacting with — and actually get out into the city and interact with people. I can’t help the children drowning in the Mediterranean, but I signed up to lead a playgroup at a local homeless shelter. I can remember that everyone I meet is fighting a great battle, and give them a moment of refreshment and rest, a kind word in a world that has maybe been cruel to them. I can remember that we have no choice, that we must love one another or die.