Can We Stop Making Ourselves So Comfortable?

A Personal Response to “Seeking a Sense of Belonging in Divided Times,” (Feb 22, 2017) by Emily Esfahani Smith

The passage below brought tears to my mom’s eyes. Now, because I read with a critical lens, as well as a sense of empathy and compassion, I disagree with Emily Esfahani Smith’s ultimate take-away, which I’ll explain as I write.

Mom gets emotional more easily than most. I’m afraid if she was on Facebook, she would be hooked in obsessively and in tears most days (tears of happiness, sadness, compassion, empathy). Managing emotion is easier for some than for others, and I think its becoming harder for most of us to manage emotion as we’re triggered constantly on Facebook and Twitter to click based on our emotional responses. This is getting worse, and many seem not to notice the dangers.

Back to the essay in question, via New York Magazine by Emily Esfahani Smith. The topic: Seeking a sense of belonging in today’s divisive times.

“Our acts of separation and rejection, small as they may be or big as they may be, are packed with significance. Trump’s election has shown us that. It’s up to us to reject his model of human relationships and belonging — to not allow his way of being to affect our own, as it has — and to reach across the many boundaries that divide us, whether it’s to welcome refugees who are suffering and seeking a better life here or to reconcile with those with whom we disagree politically.”

We can all agree with that message: we must embrace a better version of humanity than the degraded version on display in the White House. Esfahani Smith continues:

“A beautiful illustration of this came a few days after the inauguration, when three white Texans stopped by Busboys and Poets, a Washington, D.C., cafe that draws a progressive crowd. They were Trump supporters in town for the inauguration. Their waitress, Rosalynd Harris, was a young black woman who had attended the Women’s March. Yet, despite their political differences, they shared a series of warm interactions that culminated in one of the Texans, Jason White, leaving Harris a $450 tip. “We may come from different cultures and may disagree on certain issues,” he wrote her in a note accompanying the tip, “…But if everyone would share their smile and kindness like your beautiful smile, our country will come together as one people.”

After delivering the gooey anecdote that made its way around social media, Esfahani Smith writes,

“This anecdote has received some press because of the size of the tip White left. But the money isn’t the real story. The real story is that Harris decided to tear down a wall rather than build one up. Her spirit of generosity made White and his friends feel welcomed in a place that might otherwise be hostile to a group of West Texas Republicans. It’s our duty as citizens to ensure that such a spirit of generosity prevails among our political leaders to make a difference for the refugees and immigrants seeking a safe haven in this country.”

***

A spirit of generosity is no doubt needed. I am with her in many ways, but I disagree with Esfahani Smith’s ultimate assessment that the real story is the waitress, Rosalynd Harris, deciding to “tear down a wall rather than build one up.”

Stay with me. If we want genuine unity, and see this moment through a historical and critical lens, as well as a lens of empathy and compassion, then we need to unpack this. That unsettling feeling that I sit with is complex. First, the idea that we congratulate the unusual, impractical act of leaving a $450 tip for a smiling, kind waitress as an act of racial unity and healing. Esfahani Smith appropriately explains that the money shouldn’t be the take-away. But she misses the bigger lesson, beyond the simple lesson. Esfahani Smith’s new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, may well be wonderful. She may help many wealthy (yes, wealthy) people see that life is more than a paper-chase and an accumulation of technological stuff. But it is certainly through her lens of radical empathy that our well-meaning progressive culture holds people that live outside of the dominant progressive culture to impossible standards. She misses the fact that this young black woman, Rosalynd Harris is in the middle of a transaction with young wealthy white men. Her income is based on friendliness, hospitality, and efficiency. No smile. No tip. Huge smile and especially warm greeting to a trio of young men…maybe one time in your life you’ll get a surprisingly generous tip. It may sound cold, but there is no message here.

This is not healing for all of us. This is the Hollywood version of racial healing. Hollywood is slowly evolving, but it still goes down smooth, and is filled with more uplift than reality ever will be. For every Moonlight (not at all a Hollywood film) or Paterson (Jarmusch pet project), there are ten Adam Sandler films. The healing we see on the ground is much harder to come by, and much easier to ignore on a daily basis. If we want to talk about unity and financial generosity, we must talk about reparations, the minimum wage, and the glass ceiling.

The daily eye contact and casual, but warm, greeting toward the person who rings up your groceries at the market, or the drugstore. The small talk that keeps the world from being suffocatingly small. Humoring each other rather than simply tolerating, or worse, completely ignoring the existences of the souls that you happen upon in daily life. Phone calls instead of texts. Hugs instead of emojis. When there is time, of course. Precious and meaningless all in the same: time.

Increasingly, the privileged don’t have these daily interactions to remind them of their own humanity, and of the need for patience. Waiting in line is a universal human act. It has been since we bathed at the watering hole. But some pay our way out of these acts, leaving those that have to stand in line at, say…Target, glued to their phones and trying to keep from getting agitated. The whole thing is ridiculous. Healing doesn’t start with a donation. And it doesn’t end with a Facebook share or a Retweet. And yet, we need donations. And we absolutely must remain plugged in to social media, if we plan on building community.

Perhaps there are a few exceptions, those who will actually write the great American novel of healing, or direct the film that does more than merely entertain or alleviate white guilt, but inspires collective action. Perhaps. But the vast majority of people who unplug also don’t bother to vote, become cynical and grouchy, and stop devoting themselves to the causes of justice, whether the cause be environmental or human rights-based.

Maybe Harris’ generosity to these young West Texas Republicans was based on the demands of waiting tables (I’ve waited tables, and learned from the career servers the depth of the charade — when you’re smiling, you’re not always smiling.

Maybe we should stop sharing stories only about the smiles of the people who have to serve everyone else. Maybe we should acknowledge that we have to find ways, as men, or as white people, or as wealthy people, or as coastal people, or any and all of the aforementioned ways of privilege, to stop insisting everyone smile and be kind in order to ease our anxieties and fears. Yes, we must unify. There is no doubt about that. But the experiences of women, people of color, poor people, and the folks not living on the coasts or in cities, those experiences often creates a sense of alienation, fear and anger that is palpable and inescapable. For too long, the extreme right has taken those fears and used them to manipulate state laws and elections.

***

I love my mom. Her heart, her empathy and compassion have compelled me to live an examined and reflective life. However, my education, my own choices, my work experiences and the reading I’ve done have all led me to question what we ask of the people who are most at risk in our society. Instead of crying tears of Utopian unity, we need to examine ourselves and our roles. Good for the West Texas Republicans for leaving a huge tip. Reparations are necessary. $450 is just the beginning. Waiting tables. Waiting. We’re all waiting.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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