A Secret

About 25 years ago, I was in an AA meeting when I heard someone say not to “compare your insides to someone else’s outsides” and I’ve used it a personal mantra ever since. I like this quote for many reasons but what stands out the most is that we have no idea what someone is going through, or what they have been through, so we are in no place to judge them.

This sounds easier than done as much of spiritual growth comes from those who have been freed from the worldly chains of worry and we only know this because they tell us. Imagine a pastor who tried to preach only by living by example. To understand people; we need context.

So where is the line between gaining a fuller understanding of our fellows and passing judgement? If we hear about a person who has survived or endured are we not more likely to think they are of better character for it? Judgement doesn’t have to be a bad to exist.

On Tuesdays, I teach English to immigrants, primarily from Somalia, in North Minneapolis. I travel 35 minutes north, far from the safety of my suburban nest into a neighborhood regarded as one of the more dangerous parts of Minnesota. I am a middle aged, portly, white woman, who lives in an affluent, mostly white suburb and who fits into a plethora of stereotypes, none of which seem to belong in this area. I know this yet; I am undisturbed because I have a secret.

Today, a discussion erupted between my students about the fear they had fleeing from their countries and the challenges they faced as they entered the United States. A mother lamented about the shame her female children felt when they finally were able to attend an American school and were instructed to leave off their hijabs during class. A man shared about the physical dangers encountered in the countries he passed through on his way to the USA. Everyone had something to say that was outside of the average American experience.

Everyone had something to say except one girl, I’ll call her Ze. This girl is the best student in the class and her language skills dwarf her fellows. Ze absolutely had the ability to partake in the discussion but chose not to. After everyone had shared some truly heartbreaking things, my co-teacher pressed Ze to share a time she was afraid. Ze said nothing and was unmoved by her question. Then from the back of the class, a man who knows Ze started talking in another language and others jumped in adding comments in the same language. It was clear that the entire class had something to say about Ze.

Ze remained stoic. I asked for a translation, and it quickly became clear that the class did not think that Ze had suffered sufficiently as her experience was different than theirs. Ze’s father brought her to the US and as one of her classmates so eloquently put it Ze “moved from pillow to pillow” as if the effort and pain she endured to migrate to the US was nothing more stressful than a night’s sleep.

Ze remained quiet for the rest of the class and left quickly afterwards. As I was driving home, I passed Ze and her father waiting at a bus stop. It was not lost on me that she was taking the bus while everyone else in the class had access to a car. The experience of the behavior of my class stuck with me and I thought about it most of the way home. Ze’s character made an impression on me. I don’t know what sort of life she’s lived or what her circumstances are, but I do know that she had held her composure today against the judgement of her peers with a level of grace that I admire. There is something in Ze that I recognize. Ze carries a secret too.

Humans are amazingly complicated creatures. We’ve spent most of our existence trying to categorize and reason with something that is simply unreasonable: the will of humankind. We can be dangerous and unpredictable with a will to live that will crush anything that stands in our way. We can all be predators and we are capable of every savage thing imaginable. When I say “we”; I mean everyone. Every man, woman, and child, has it in them.

Humans can be ferocious, life can be brutal, and short, and the only guarantee is death. This is not good, or bad, it just is. No amount of bravado, ego, angst, or other glorified emotion changes this reality.

People who have not lived like to place judgements on those who have. It is not uncommon to hear “I couldn’t even imagine….”, “that poor girl or boy….”, “I don’t think I could survive….” As a show of empathy for something they can’t even begin to understand. It becomes easy to equate survival as something reserved for the elite.

It is the ego that places survivors into an untouchable realm. The brutality of humankind is then portrayed as elusive. Fear does not allow people to trust that the same brutality that frightens them, is also deep inside them, albeit many people leave it untapped.

My secret is I know what I am capable of. I do not fear the madness of others as my own madness is waiting to unleash itself from reasoned thought. I have survived my own battles and I have grieved. The life I have today is all a bonus and I do not wish to waste any of it on the opinions of others.

However, a wish is just a wish without action. To be a stoic in the face of slander, to walk calmly down a dangerous street, to confront life on life’s terms, all take practice. Some days are better than others. Today, I will do my best to not judge my insides against other people’s outsides.

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