Start with this, then I’ll tell you a story:
Pretty great, right? Well, except for the last 20 or so seconds, but still…
So, my family and I were in the Metro station a few weeks ago, waiting for a train. Standing to my right, also waiting for a train, was a gentleman wearing a taqiyah, one of these kinds of head coverings:
As people poured out of the train on the platform (not our train, as it happened), another, younger man walked up to our waiting companion and greeted him with a warm As-salam alaykum. Gentleman #1 returned the greeting, the two shook hands and exchanged a brief hug, and the boy continued on his way. It didn’t appear to me that they knew each other at all; they didn’t stop to chat, and they didn’t share any other pleasantries but the greeting, the handshake, and the hug.
The whole train trip back to the apartment, I thought about that exchange. I’m assuming that the taqiyah was the giveaway that marked the waiting man as a member of the younger man’s “group;” I take leave to seriously doubt that he would have approached any other stranger with the same kind of confidence with which he greeted the waiting man – or that he would have greeted the man in that way had he not been wearing the cap. He certainly didn’t offer us any kind of acknowledgement.
I found the whole encounter both incredibly heartening and a little sad. How wonderful to see some sort of outward sign that indicates that someone you’ve never met belongs to your “tribe” or your “family,” and to know that you can approach that person on the street (or in a train station) and offer up a little loving kindness and know that it will be returned to you. How wonderful to know that a complete stranger would offer assistance, would have your back, or would just be nice to you.
At the same time, though, how sad it is that we can’t rely really on each other for those things without some sort of outward symbol that marks us as a part of a common “tribe.”* I was thinking about it, and I couldn’t come up with anything – no political button or religious symbol or anything – that would work. I’ve never seen any two strangers greet each other with such enthusiastic warmth just because they were both wearing crucifixes or had “Make Love, Not War” buttons on their lapels.
How do we begin to break down the very real walls that separate us? How do we stop being afraid to talk to each other, to reach out to one another with kindness and compassion – hell, to even make eye contact with strangers? How do we begin to treat each other as the brothers and sisters that we really are, without the confines of religious or political or national association? How do we start to really SEE each other? I have the feeling that, if we could figure this out (even on a small, hyper-local scale), we could start making some real and positive changes.
*note: It is by no means my intention to claim that we don’t ever help strangers – I think that the Boston Marathon bombing put to rest any argument about that. I am saying, though, that we don’t offer one another kindness as a day-to-day practice. I think we should.