As a little girl, I worshiped my older brother. He was all limbs, big brown eyes, bright smile, and deep dimples. He was Dennis without menace. Even now, I close my eyes and see his little league portrait—him in a red cap, with a baseball bat slung over his shoulders, smiling like he’d just won the World Series. I am five years his junior, but from my seat as little sister, his childhood was an effortless stream of baseball games, Cub Scout meetings, and soccer tournaments. I was relegated to the sidelines of his life. His Fridays were always full of sleepovers and play dates, while I spent mine with Steve Urkel or the Sweet Valley High twins. My brother was cool; he inhabited a world I could never reach. It’s amazing that we were raised in the same household. It’s amazing how different we were.
When I think about racial tensions in America right now—specifically the resurgence of civil protest over the unjust deaths of black men (and women) at the hands of law enforcement—I think of my brother. Not because he’s a black man, but because of how different we are as siblings. He is a buttoned-up corporate finance guy, and I’m a perpetually wrinkled and wayward artistic type. I think about the way we recount childhood memories. His are always filled with a compassion for our parents that I don’t always possess. He remembers good times, but I have cataloged the bad moments in the back of my mind. I’m always willing to pull them out when he forgets.
I view mainstream America the same way I view my brother’s memories, as a magical land I know and love, but can never fully inhabit. There will always be things my brother doesn’t understand about me. There will always be things about his outlook that are different from my own. Our conversations about our family always end the same way, with him shrugging and conceding that he doesn’t remember what I do, but I take solace in the places where our minds and hearts intersect. I take comfort in the fact that, in spite of difference, there is love. We are two very similar people, raised under identical circumstances, having such different memories that we’re often left astounded. Can we, as citizens, acknowledge that we’ve had vastly different upbringings? Can we learn to understand each other’s differing points of view?
I am grappling with what it means to be a human being of color in this country. It’s hard to remain present to injustice and simultaneously open-hearted. I can’t tell you that it’s easy to be calm. When Darren Wilson’s grand jury verdict came in, I was irate. When I saw the footage from Eric Garner’s death, I stopped breathing. I watched with suspended breath because the injustice was unconscionable. I can’t tell anyone to tell their children that respectability saves lives, or that things will be okay we meditate, eat clean, and just follow the rules, because I am acutely aware that my brother was allowed to be adorable, then allowed to be rebellious, and finally, allowed to grow into an adult. He was given the space and time to become himself.
Not all Americans who look like him possess the privilege to make mistakes.
Every story is valid, and every truth deserves voice. I can’t actually report that every protester is peaceful or that this movement will yield real change. I was sick to my stomach when I heard two police officers had been killed by someone claiming to fight for change. And, for all my anger and indignation, I cannot tell you with real certainty that if I were an NYPD officer I would’ve acted from a more enlightened place. I have no idea what it’s like to be an officer of the law. I have no idea what kind of pressure that entails. I’ve never touched a gun in my entire life. I don’t know how easy (or hard) it is to pull a trigger. And that, dear friends, is the toughest truth to swallow: None of us know what it feels like to embody the experience of another. None of us know what we would do if faced with a fate different from our own.
All self-righteousness is merely speculation.
It is my personal belief that this movement against police brutality is about self-love trying to find expression. It is my belief that #blacklivesmatter is a spiritual (and political) cry for acknowledgement beyond superficial trappings of success. Black lives in the housing projects matter, black lives in jail cells matter as much as the black lives in country clubs, c-suites, and college dorms. If we understand that this civil action, and all human interaction, is an attempt at obtaining love and acceptance, how do our conversations change? How can we approach those who don’t believe what we believe? How can we help each other as family members having vastly different experiences in our American home? How can we hear each other’s offerings, even if we don’t agree? How can we face injustice with open hearts?
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At a bar the other night, a friend told me the story of a Hindu saint who, while visiting with his disciples, saw a group of family members shouting at one another. The saint asked his disciples why people shout when they are angry, and his disciples replied that people shout when they lose their calm. The priest acknowledged that his disciples had a point, but he pressed them.
“Why do they shout even though they are next to each other? Why not express themselves softly?”
When the disciples failed to come up with an answer, the saint finally revealed an insight: People shout because anger distances hearts from one another. These family members were yelling in an effort to bridge the gap.
In the end, we all are fighting to be heard. In the end, those who shout the loudest are those desperate to express the anguish in their hearts. Those who shout don’t need to calm down, but those of us who are calm should meet their siblings with open ears and open hearts. We must all work to bridge the gaps in our lives.
I refuse to tell anyone to quell his anger or stay calm. Anger is almost always telling us a truth, but if closeness and healing is what we’re all truly after, then, eventually, no matter the obstacle we’re facing, we must eventually move toward one another. We have to remember that we are people, raised in the same world, given similar myths and national ideals. We have to trust that diversity can unite us. We have to trust that we can face two truths at once.
From this chaotic and conflicting place I can’t offer solutions, but I can offer a prayer to anyone who is reading: I pray that you simply remain awake.
You don’t have to become enlightened or reach a state cool indifference. Just open your arms and embrace yourself wherever you are right now. Open your own heart to the truth of your own feelings. Open your heart to your love and your biases as well. This is how we wake up—through unconditional self-love and relentless self-honesty. So, if you’re secretly angry, may you be awake. And if you are tired, may you be awake. And if you are raging, may you be awake. And if you’re torn, may you be awake. And if you are vengeful, may you be awake. If you are sad, may you be awake. And if you’re complacent, may you be awake. And if you don’t care, may you be awake. And if you feel hatred, may you be awake. And if you think black lives matter, may you be awake. And if you think they don’t, may you be awake. And if you’re working toward change, may you be awake. And if you’re part of the problem, may you be awake.
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And if you’re sleeping, may you find solace in your desire to remain asleep. May your dreams be pleasant.
Wherever you are, may you warm up to this truth: When you rise from self-imposed slumber, you realize there are no enemies. There is only love, though it sometimes wears strange, scary, and insidious disguises.
May we find the courage and self-awareness to be honest about where we are, and may we all move forward together.