Monday, June 20, 2016

After All, This Is Us

After All, This Is Us
By Debi Smith 
Vigil on "The Bricks" in Ashland, Oregon on June 13, 2016 (Photo courtesy Krista Larson)

A man in shorts and faded rainbow socks handed out candles. Another man softly played the keyboard. A small dog with a brightly hued trailing scarf who didn’t appear to be attached to anyone pranced about. The late spring sun was setting; a gentle breeze was blowing. This was the scene as we each, I’d guess 300 or more, quietly gathered together last week at “The Bricks,” a small amphitheater outside the main stages at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival here in bucolic Ashland, Oregon. All very far removed in many ways from the horrific violence, bloodshed, death, and painful realities that unfolded thousands of miles away at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12th. But it was also so very close. This could have been us. This was us. And to go a step further, it is us in similar and much worse events, events that we rarely give our attention to, that happen daily all over the world.

Pondering all the above while waiting for the vigil to honor the Orlando victims to officially begin, I was reminded of something that had happened a couple days previous. I was at a downtown  bookstore and had been in the back looking through books for a while when my son walked in. We were meeting in town for lunch. I didn’t even get a chance to give him a hug before a woman hurried back and asked that we put our backpacks up front. I put down the book I was looking at and we left. When it was just me, a nicely dressed middle-aged white woman, I hadn’t been asked to doff my backpack at the front. It was quite clear that they were profiling my son. It made me hurt for him. I told him that I rarely feel profiled or discriminated against. He said it is his near-daily reality. 

This experience made me hurt for my son—and for all people who are profiled and discriminated against—and far worse—for absolutely no good reason.

Yet, it was remembering what had happened with my son that made me shamefully realize that I myself had given fear a temporary win, even if only subconsciously, when I chose where I would sit at this vigil—where my goal was to affirm the open and caring world I want to live in, and leave for my children and their children—based on comfort zones. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of anyone, but I realized that having arrived alone at the event and uncertain what to expect from it, that I had unconsciously chosen to sit by people who looked more like me. Now it was me being discriminatory for absolutely no good reason.

But this is where hope comes in.

At least I had a conscious, better late than never, recognition of my own fear-based behavior. Conscious recognition of unconsciously held fears and their attendant behaviors is the first step!

A man stepped onto the stage to speak, introducing himself as Luis Alfaro, the current Playwright in Residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He shared a story about seeing a straight couple on a train in Chicago openly showing their love and affection to each other that was juxtaposed against another couple across the aisle, two men who acted like they didn’t know each other, who were discretely holding hands under a briefcase. When he said this made him wonder how long it would be before everyone could openly show their love, my monkey mind went to reusable shopping bags, and how 25 years ago I felt like the weird one for taking my own bags to the store and that now I feel like the weird one when I forget them. 

Odd example perhaps, certainly not an issue of the same scale, but it is an example of how a paradigm shift in our collective thinking and habits occurred. And it gives me hope for the far more fundamental issues of our time that need to be addressed, and shifted.

Luis said that the events in Orlando made him feel hopeless. But then he went to a local store to pick up some supplies for the vigil and was in line. One of the items was a small rainbow ribbon, which he pinned to his chest. He could feel the woman next to him looking at him and he feared her judgment. 

Luis continued, “I was standing there wondering what she was thinking. She finally said something. Said she cared. She asked if she could touch the ribbon and I nodded yes. It was on my heart. She put her hand there on my heart, and then her other hand on her heart.”

It was the smallest of gestures, yet also the largest. My hand on your heart. No fear. I hear and feel your pain. We are in this together.

The vigil here in my small town was not only a memorial to the lives that were mercilessly revoked by a mad gunman the wee morning hours of June 12th. We were also gathering with millions of others around the globe to honor our commonly shared humanity and to affirm what it means to love—regardless of race, gender, age, sexual identification, religion, politics, education, employment, economic standing, body shape, hair color or length, music interests, style of dress, artistic expression, or any other label or description commonly or not commonly used to separate and divide.

We each have our own unique perspectives. This can be a beautiful thing. But how many of our perspectives, if we are honest with ourselves, are born out of fear? Fear that we were conditioned to accept without questioning?

We are at a turning point. We have a choice to make. It’s quite an easy choice really, it’s just one we make difficult when we listen to, and buy into (figuratively and literally), all the fear-mongering that forms the crux of most of our media and politics—media and politics owned by a very small but effective consortium who knows that fear and division are the easiest ways to control people. But we don’t have to listen to them. We can choose love and compassion, and learn to dialogue in new and more effective ways, especially about the very big issues that we face in this country and around the world. As the Dalai Lama wrote recently in an op-ed for the Washington Post regarding his hopefulness for humanity's future, “There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Vigils are helpful. Moments of silence are appropriate. Giving something a “like” or “thumbs down” or “sad face” emoji on our social media devices might help us feel involved. Hashtag prayers and profile flag overlays are fine but only go so far and are clearly getting old. The practice of writing letters to the editor, and op-ed pieces, and calling our state representatives are even more participatory, effective, and important. But we need to do more. We need to find ways to gather together and dialogue. Compassionately. Without just stating our opinion (such as on social media, or a bumper sticker, or even in an essay like this) and then just moving on without sticking around to hear what anyone else thinks. We need to actually dialogue. With everyone, but especially with those who we think we disagree with.

We won’t always agree. The way forward won’t always be easy. We have difficult work to do within ourselves, and we have difficult work to do together. But let’s stop listening to the incredibly small cabal of fearmongers who are intent on controlling our thinking. Let us instead listen to each other. Truly listen. I know in my heart that we will find we have much more in common with each other than the fear and division we are told to believe in. And In the process we may listen to someone in such a way that helps them feel heard, acknowledged, and accepted as a human being, which just might help them feel more connected to life than taking it.

Let’s figure out how to do this thing. I know we can accomplish many great things together.

I welcome your thoughts, comments, and ideas on how we—as part of one human family—can come together, as the Dalai Lama encourages, to create new mechanisms of compassionate dialogue. You can email me at There’s no reason some of the ideas can’t be fun! Like hosting a neighborhood block party to get to know our neighbors better—which our family will be doing in the next couple of weeks. Or as simple as looking up from all our electronic devices and smiling and saying “hello” to people who cross our paths. After all, this is us.