I had been living in St. Louis for about a year when two hijacked planes collided into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. What I remember most about that time, emotionally, was the overwhelming feeling of being so far away. I had moved to St. Louis from upstate New York. I felt like the eyes of the world were focused on terror in my own backyard, witnessing the tragedy of my neighbors. And there I was…several states away…wanting to be there, to do something, to reach out, to support. But, I was helplessly at a distance.
In the days that followed, my desire to get in my car and do something to help in New York was replaced by an urgency to help my students and colleagues make sense in the aftermath of a tragedy the impact of which had ripple effects. It took very little time for everyone to feel like I did: that our country’s yard had been invaded, and that the presumption of safety wasn’t something we could take for granted. I began to teach my students, and I was learning and processing with faculty in my own classes, too. With my clients in the community I was vicariously processing grief compounding grief, and occasionally anger over a hidden injustice within mass trauma: the sense of how unfair it can seem when the whole country can stop to mourn loss at a distance when there are deeply personal, close to home losses that grieving people feel they are navigating alone. Work found me, as it does, and people crossed my path as I crossed theirs. Soon my own integration of helping in my own corner of the world made the distance seem less cavernous.
I’m reflecting on this now because, ironically, I am back on the East Coast and it is a town in the near north suburb of St. Louis that is drawing my heart and attention and reminding me of how close I feel, yet how far away I am. When I see pictures of Ferguson, MO they are incredibly familiar. I’ve been on home visits in and near Canfield. I have driven down the streets where the protesters march, and I have stood in those same places and felt both distance, and disparity. For me, disparity presents as that nagging sense of injustice when you’ve been to three back-to-back bereavement visits in one low-income zip code with families who have had a baby die. And yet, you realize that you’ve had no visits in more affluent areas of town with just as many families. I’ve stood in the police academies in St. Louis County, teaching young cadets about death scene investigations, the aftermath of tragedy on both crime victims and neighborhoods and warning against presumption and compassion fatigue. I’ve walked those roads they are walking, and felt those tensions that people are voicing. My eyes are glued to my twitter feed, and I force myself to watch every #Ferguson and #MikeBrown video posted on Twitter, Vine, and both the St. Louis American (the independent African American newspaper) and the traditional media from St. Louis. I know that there is a deeper story-beneath-the-story taking place that is rooted in disparity. I have walked those streets and I have felt it. But today, I am at a distance.
The tensions playing out on the streets of Ferguson, though, are not isolated. Like the cataclysmic events of 9/11, the whole nation is beginning to feel the aftershock. Structural racism…the almost invisible assumptions of privilege, power, economic disparity and social expectations…this has been a force that keeps Americans at a distance from the struggles that still exist from a history marred by slavery, discrimination, hatred, and mistrust. We don’t want to feel it. We want to keep it at arm’s length. We falsely think that we cannot be “great” if we own that we have faults. We fail to consider that maybe what would make us truly great is owning them, struggling with them. Getting real. Not just in Ferguson, MO…but in every one of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods…there is important work to do.
I have been thinking about being at a distance, because I have come to believe its a state of mind and a choice borne of privilege to remain at a distance. I can choose to watch or not watch videos on my portable electronics. I own that choice. I watched a video this morning filmed on the camera phone of someone who heard shots fired and was standing on the other side of police tape from Michael Brown’s body. The resident did not have a choice about his distance. He did, however, have a camera. And that broke down the distance between his life, and my own. I could choose to stand in his shoes, and watch, and learn. And I did watch. I watched ten minutes of raw footage where I heard shock, anger, confusion, frustration, blame, truths, half-truths, questions, uncertainty, presumption, fears. The poignant cry of a woman saying repeatedly, “where in the f— is the ambulance, where is it???” while someone else points out repeatedly, “he’s dead. that boy is dead. That’s Mike and he’s dead. Those m— f—ers shot him, and there he is, dead.” And I keep watching, wondering if one of those police officers…any of them…standing around, walking by, holding back the crowds…was ever at a training I did where I talked about the respect of the dying, recognition of the shock of the grieving, and the compatibility of compassion with law enforcement. It was an enormously long ten minutes of watching a body with blood and brains streaking all over the pavement, with police passing by and neighbors standing all around, for someone to finally get a sheet and cover his body.
Even from a distance, I was crying. Dignity and respect were not on that scene until that one, lone act. It didn’t go unnoticed. In the background, in the softest voice, the holder of the camera says almost under his breath, “You finally went and got a sheet.” It was as if he read my mind.
The levels of injustice, oppression, and structural inequality that are being demonstrated about on the streets of Ferguson, MO will find their way into my classroom, into my conversations, into my facebook updates and this blog for a long time to come. But, what we cannot afford to do…not one more second…is to keep dignity and respect at a distance. We can disagree, we can come from completely different perspectives. But respect: that is human. And that is divine.
When I watched that video, I imagined a moment when the person who finally found a sheet had a flash of clarity. No matter what happened, no matter how much anger or confusion or hatred or love or frustration or utter chaos. That person, whomever it was, acted alone because I saw him make the choice. It was the one act of dignity in an otherwise unfathomable display of injustice. For a moment, even from a distance, I felt a small point of light in that action.
So, I write this tonight because we are all at a distance, and yet just a breath away from each other. If you are reading this, from whatever distance, I urge you to one thing: choose dignity. Whatever you do, whenever you do it: promote dignity. You can banter later. You can argue details, find fault, run an investigation, state your opinion. You can be a peace-keeper or an agitator; you can be one of the powerful or one who is without power. There is room in this fabric of humanity for all of us and we are not required to agree with or like each other all the time. But, there is always…always…a time when we can and must choose dignity.
Dignity removes distance. It changes the way we feel, and the way we behave. Dignity urges us to see something larger than ourselves and beyond our limited understanding and judgment. Dignity is the gateway to grace, because we can see in another the inherent glow of humanity, a spark of divine creation. Dignity does not presume perfection or flawlessness. It presumes that all human beings have a common core of potential. Dignity costs nothing but our vulnerability. Dignity is more valuable than the most prized possession.
Even from a distance, dignity is a small point of light in this scene filled with unfinished struggles and structural challenges. Bring it into your world, wherever you are standing. This small point of light has the power to change the world.