For 11 years Parker Palmer worked and lived in a Quaker living-learning community of 70 people called Pendle Hill, where lives were woven together, but enmities could also be deep. There was a woman who he could not stand, and to be in her presence galled him. During a time of daily communal silence and prayer, he was forced to sit beside this person.
Half an hour later, head still bowed, he opened his eyes and found himself looking directly as this woman’s upturned hand as it rested on her knee. There, spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight, he saw the faint but steady throb of an artery in her wrist, the elemental beat of her very human heart. In that silent, sunlit moment Parker knew beyond words that here was a person just like me, with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and disappointments, joys and despairs.
In an instant, that lady was humanized for Parker Palmer. He could no longer demonize her as he had before. Trying to “talk things out” with her probably would not have had a similar result.
This story is about the power of silence, yes, but to me it is more about the power of recognizing others’ humanity. Noticing the bodily incarnation of someone seems a holy thing – to see the miracle of life coursing through us, in the blood, yes, but perhaps something intangible, beyond the mechanics of it, into mystery.
But maybe it is by looking at the concrete body, by seeing the messiness and humble beauty of humanity that we approach those other elements. I remember my father’s piercing green eyes as he lay dying. I did not realize he could not stand for me to touch him with his nerves aflame, but he let me rub his hand until he could no longer bear the pain. I studied his hands. I studied my grandmother’s hands as she lay unconscious, dying. They would twitch occasionally, involuntarily, soft and child-like but with age spotting them. And when my friend Dale lay paralyzed, I regarded his hands, which had once always been in motion, now still, shaped the same but function flown away. And in the last hours and days of those folks, I noticed the blood course in the veins of the necks, the paper thin translucence of their eyelids, their hands transformed.
She who has eyes to see, let her see. Notice the lilies in the field. Pay attention to the details, for they bring us into something like truth.
When I teach and study history, I think about the mentalités of the people who lived long ago, or who lived recently – the context and web of their worlds, what made their lives worth living. This mentalité, a world view, the mental framework shapes their reality and it shapes ours.
The history of the 20th century is littered with suffering and woe, but actually, according to historian Steven Tinker, most pieces of human life improved compared to other epochs of history -- but maybe this illuminated century has only shown evil in greater relief. And one pattern I see repeating and continuing to repeat is how people dehumanize each other. You make call it demonize another.
Dehumanize - to believe someone is so unlike you at the core that they cannot really feel the same things you do; they cannot have values that are not perverted; they cannot really love or have honor and dignity. They are more like animals, dangerous elements. To harden your heart against them, either because it is too hard to hear or because their stories anger you because you believe they brought it on themselves.
Of course I have examples: the extermination of the Jewish population in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. The slaughter of Cambodians during the rule of Pol Pot’s Khymer Rouge, the genocide in Rwanda where people were hacked to death with machetes at a greater rate daily than German trains, technological gas chambers, and crematoria could do. We know who the bad guys are, the ones who murdered others. But before we get too comfortable, let us remember what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, "If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
To teach empathy is to remind students that the Nazis are human too. Hitler was a person. As vile as we hold him to be, his heart pushed blood through his arteries and his hands grew still as he died. If we objectify those who do evil, we have committed an error ourselves.
To be an embodied human being is a gift of grace, and sometimes it can feel like a curse. But if we can see mystery and shared human-ness, that humanness in God’s image, then maybe we are on to something. God knows us as embodied – he counts the hairs on our head. Jesus become embodied, human, and reached out to those on the margins, to those who had been judged or dehumanized, and brought them into the center of his stories.
Living in the Body
Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.
Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.
Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.
That’s really it. Bodies die. They are a reminder of the miracle of life and that life will cease. If we stop and notice each other as human beings, to see others’ vulnerabilities and recognize our own -- we will most likely develop compassion, even for those who persecute us or make us angry or cause us pain.
For we are all so very vulnerable. And this is hard and scary work, and easy to turn aside from. But may we be given courage to see – to really see - the image of God in everyone we interact with, and may we be reminded that God knows us in our bodily form, and may we make choices to act with love, kindness, compassion, mercy.