Tag Archives: dignity

Make Them Know

“Make them know.”

In Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, Skeetah, a poor Mississippi teenage boy whispered that phrase to his treasured pit bull, China, before sending her into battle against her nemesis, Kilo.  I found it to be the most gripping line in a terrific book.

Salvage the Bones is a fierce story of a poor family as told through the eyes of a teenage girl, motherless, surrounded by men and boys, secretly pregnant, and trying to understand life as Hurricane Katrina warms up, bears down, and then inundates their world.  Among many compelling topics the novel explores is the idea of invisibility, which is where the phrase “make them know” leapt off the page and demanded my attention.  Unnoticed, overlooked, neglected—those are not good words, and undeniably not a good feeling.

My little family of four lost our home eleven years ago today in Hurricane Katrina, and although we surprisingly have fond memories of that great national tragedy due to a heightened sense of community and the opportunity to meet great-hearted strangers full of love, the raging waters surely had some of our tears sprinkled in.  And, to be honest, from time to time, a little bit of spit in it projected in anger toward institutions including but not limited to governments and insurance companies, pardon the legalese.

And I’ll tell you, if you ever want to get punched by someone from Mississippi (and who doesn’t?), then say that you thought Hurricane Katrina was just in New Orleans.  Please know that it wasn’t.

Make them know.

When you mix marginalization and anger and leave it in the microwave too long, you start to hear those words building in your heart.  And more often than not, they emerge violently.

So why does my family have fond memories of a tragedy in our lives?  Despite the infuriating institutions that failed us?  Despite the relatively speaking inordinate attention our New Orleans neighbors received?  It is because we were loved.  We were known.

In this tragic world of ours, where the recipe for violence is constantly prepared in the kitchen, the best advice I can offer is to be about the work of making others known.  Expecting others to do it themselves is not healthy for anyone.

Just Mercy

My colleague, Jessie, said that I needed to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I told her that I already had a sizable stack of books to read. She brought me a copy anyway. I read it. She was right.

Cue the Twilight Zone music because in the middle of the inspiring, troubling, quick read, I learned that Bryan Stevenson was scheduled to speak at Pepperdine this semester. I attended the lecture this past week and had the distinct honor of attending a dinner with Mr. Stevenson afterward. It turned out that I needed to hear him speak, too.

So you can quit reading and buy the book now and thank me later.

If you need further encouragement, how about Desmond Tutu?

“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all.”

Wow, you still haven’t purchased the book? Let’s try John Grisham:

“Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”

Okay, I’m not playing around now. If justice and/or the American South and/or the United States of America and/or humanity means anything to you, read this book.

That’s all I need to write today, but as a bonus consider arguably the best line from Stevenson’s book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Think about it: What is the worst thing you have ever done, and does that define you? Are you really best described as: Cheater? Thief? Addict? Criminal? Liar?

Well, if you answered Yes, I join Stevenson in declaring that you are not. But for those of us who answer No, then what allows us to define anyone else by their worst moment?

Human Goodness

October is one of my twelve favorite months, but baseball might earn it top billing. It helps that I am a lifelong St. Louis Cardinal fan.

I missed most of the important Cardinals-Pirates game this past Monday due to my teaching schedule but made it home just in time to witness the scary and violent collision between two Cardinal outfielders, Peter Bourjos and Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty, a phenomenal rookie talent, was knocked out cold on the play. Players were visibly shaken as Piscotty lay motionless on the outfield grass, and players and fans alike prayed in the unusual silence of a pennant race baseball game between division rivals.

Eventually, the medical staff strapped the promising young athlete down and drove him along the warning track on the way to the hospital as the crowd silently watched and ESPN cameras followed. In a memorable moment, Piscotty weakly raised his left hand to wave to the visiting crowd.¹ The crowd erupted in applause as if their hometown hero had just delivered a key base hit.

I was moved simply by the ovation.

I have a master’s degree in cynicism that I’m not particularly proud of, but it allows me to create all sorts of scenarios. Maybe it was Cardinal fans that happened to scream their applause next to ESPN’s audio sensors. Maybe people from Pittsburgh are particularly kind. Maybe the Pirate fans coincidentally tried to start The Wave just as Piscotty gave a wave.

But I don’t think so.

I’m pretty sure there is some level of goodness in all human beings, and that is exactly what moved me. It was a brief moment when people who paid real money in hopes of watching their team destroy the hopes and dreams of the other team raised a hearty cheer for an enemy solider simply because they identified with him as a fellow human being.

A preacher once asked congregants to draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and write all the reasons they had to be happy on one side and all the reasons they had to be sad on the other and then asked which side they chose to live on. I suggest the same exercise but listing the reasons to believe in the goodness of humanity on one side and the reasons to believe otherwise on the opposite: Which side of that exercise will you choose to live on?

There are elements of both goodness and not-goodness in my life (e.g., with Piscotty hurt on the field, I am embarrassed to say that I had the actual thought that I was thankful that Bourjos made the spectacular catch) and am darn near positive that goes for everyone else, too, but what a difference it makes when we see the good in another before we see anything else.

I once read advice to live life as a reverse paranoid, i.e., walk around convinced that everyone is out to help you. That is a definite day-changer!

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¹ Piscotty is okay. Thankfully, he only suffered a head contusion, but it was scary.