This morning I climbed in a little white car with my youngest brother, his wife, and their three year-old daughter to begin the trek back from Nashville to Texas for Thanksgiving. We stopped for gas on the way out of town, and I wandered into the convenience store to browse the organic locally sourced peanut butter cracker section for breakfast. As I stood trying to decide which brand was likely to have the fewest number of carcinogens, I noticed a 50-something man (we’ll call him Buzz, because he looked like the kind of good-time Tennessee redneck who you ought to call Buzz) start to walk into the “beer cave” – the refrigerated room full of the various domestic pseudo-beers that keep a store like this in business. With one foot in the cave, a wave of self-consciousness seemed to stagger him and push him back out the door. He looked around, I’m almost certain, to see who was watching him go into the beer cave at ten in the morning. I tried hard to not be one of those people. Buzz then noticed there was a small section of beer outside the cave alongside the other cold drinks. He walked the drink aisle as though contemplating Dr. Pepper or organic locally sourced super water as an alternative to his original plan. He gradually drifted back to the beer corner, pulled out a six pack, and walked the long way around the store back to the register. Beer for breakfast it was.
Five years ago this scene would have tapped into a well of condescension and judgment in my heart. Even 18 months ago some of that same spirit of bewildered head-shaking likely would have emerged. I had heard about alcoholism and addiction. I had seen movies, read articles, and sympathized with those battling such demons. Sympathized in theory. When I came upon someone in the throes of drunkenness or poor decision making, my first thought was seldom sympathetic. I might get there eventually, but my reflex was rarely to think about that person’s story – wonder what led them to this moment of apparent foolishness or disregard for other people. But that was where my mind went today. I didn’t feel disdain or condescension for Buzz as he started into a six pack two hours before lunch. Mostly I wished I had the time and guts to introduce myself, go drink a beer with the guy, and listen to his story.
Why the change in my response?
For several months last year, someone we love very much who was battling alcoholism spent a lot of time with us. We lived and listened and just endured alongside her. We attended many AA and rehab meetings where we sat and listened to the stories of dozens and dozens of people who found themselves in the same fight. We saw some come and go – some gone for good, some gone and then back, pulling themselves off the mat to try again. And it changed me. It was a season of deep, rich, and sometimes difficult discovery – about other people, about life, about God, and about me. Perhaps the most staggering truth (and ultimately the most obvious one) that found me in that time was this: these people are me. I am them. Give me different parents, different trauma, different opportunity, different obstacles, one tiny sliver of different DNA, and I’m on the other side of this table telling my story while someone listens to me from the comfort of a privilege afforded them by none of their own doing – by a life free of the family or trauma or challenges or DNA that conspired to trap me in a system of broken physiology and thinking that, no matter how hard I try to navigate the system the way everyone says I should be able to, I cannot escape.
Which is to say I listened to people whose experiences and perspectives were different from mine, and I found myself in them. I discovered we were far more alike than the one obvious factor that placed us on opposite sides of an AA meeting would suggest. I learned to see something deeper than difference in a moment when difference is the easiest thing to see. I learned to ask questions. I learned to long to hear people’s stories in a new way. I learned that sometimes the people whose lives and behaviors seem the most absurd – most damanable – have lived so long in an avalanche of lies, abuse, disrespect, and broken relationships that they literally cannot conceive of a next step other than the one utter desperation demands. I learned that often the folks who I’m most prone to dismiss or discount are just me with a different wrinkle or two in their story, almost always wrinkles they didn’t choose.
As I watched through the dirty convenience store window, Buzz climbed into his truck, cracked the first beer free from the plastic ring, and drove away. I glanced down from the window and my eyes stopped on a newspaper. A camera had captured several black faces in a moment of visceral disgust and bewilderment as they heard the news in Ferguson last night. I looked at the anger and weariness in their eyes, surprised that instead of seeing people I ought to shake my head about, I saw that ol’ boy Buzz.
And I saw me.