Listen; don't be silent; be compassionate
June 12, 2020
By David Bornstein
It’s been a long time since the last Good Word column, but I find myself driven — compelled — to write something during these painful, difficult days. I don’t want this to be another “jump on the bandwagon” proof of conscience statement, or another in the long litany of “we are not racist but can do better” epiphanies of the moment. And the truth is, I wouldn’t be writing were it not for a confluence of incidents that swirled around me recently that provoked me and forced me to write.
I heard two stories from two different friends, neither of whom are black or brown, both of whom shall remain nameless, but each shed light on these heartrending events of history to which we all are bearing witness.
The first took place on, of all places, a tennis court. Two men were playing a singles match when one of them, disappointed in his play, lost it. He exploded in anger at himself, spewing a stew of invectives that bothered everyone around them. My friend — the person on the other side of the net — was used to his opponent’s trigger temper and said nothing. And in all honesty, it’s hard to confront a friend in a situation like that. What do you say? Shut up? Grow up? Be more sensitive to those around you? Instead, after the match my friend apologized to the people who were playing adjacent to them. But in speaking to me later he felt guilty that he hadn’t said something, that he was, in a sense, complicit by virtue of silence, in not reprimanding his tennis buddy and telling him not to do it again. The story has a better ending. The foul-mouthed partner called a day or so later, acknowledged his bad behavior and swore it would never happen again. And it probably won’t. He is, in every other way, a good man, and we can hope for the best.
The second story came from a friend who has a friend who is an alcoholic. Recently the alcoholic friend has become more of a burden. At a dinner party he passed out early and his wife had to put him to bed, ruining an otherwise nice evening. At a golf outing he started drinking early and got belligerent, then had to be driven home. My friend was depressed. What was he to do? Get angry at his buddy? Not play golf with him or socialize with him and his wife anymore? Always drive by himself if they were doing something together? I told him, gently, that alcoholism is a disease, and that until his friend dealt with it, the bad stuff would continue. In all likelihood this person would destroy his marriage, lose his job and his friends to the illness unless he confronted it and did something directly. And my friend concurred. He understood that the only path available to him was one of compassion and understanding. He had to encourage his friend to seek help, say he would be there for him, and if he didn’t there would be consequences for him and limitations on their friendship. It was the only way to go.
Why do I tell you these two disconnected stories when the world is focused on George Floyd, on the systemic racism in our country and the need to affect positive, permanent social change?
Because, as a Jew — a privileged, white, Jewish man — it has for years been too easy to say, “I understand. I can relate to the black experience. I too have suffered from bigotry, from issues of inequality, and I stand with you.” It has been too easy for the Jewish community to assume a kindred spirit with the African-American community. But here’s the truth: We don’t understand. We’ll never fully understand what it’s like to live 24 hours a day, every day, with black or brown skin. We can, in a sense, “shed our skin” (our Jewishness) simply by not announcing it. Assimilation has allowed us to do that. If we don’t say our last name, or wear a chai or a Star of David on a necklace, we can be as white as anyone.
So what can we do? What should we do? The stories I recently heard reinforced in me what we must do to alter the tide of history, to change the current of inhumanity that yes, has been part of American culture and society since this country’s inception. And I think that comes in three parts.
First, we must listen, understanding at the same time that we are not the other person. We may not have anger issues or problems with alcoholism, but we can be present and aware of the problem at hand. We can’t allow ourselves to get used to its existence. We can’t take for granted that, well, he’s always had an anger issue, he’s always been a big drinker, there’s always been some form of racism. We must listen and work at empathy and never be complacent.
Second, silence is not an option. If we are bystanders we are complicit. If we do nothing we share in all the shouted profanities, in whatever occurs when a friend blacks out or drives drunk, or when an act of racism takes place, be it implicit or explicit, be it a Confederate flag waving at a political event or a white woman weaponizing her race with the police against a black man or a police officer murdering another person of color.
And third, we must be compassionate. We must respond with love and work hard to appreciate and understand the humanity in everyone, the need we all have to be part of a connected human race, that we all share the same DNA, that we all need one another, that differences are minimal and what we share is universal. We all need to be loved and appreciated and understood. And if we can’t stand together, we will live and die alone.
And that’s the good word in these troubling times. Stay safe and healthy. Listen. Speak up. Be good and spread the love. Feel free to contact me through the Heritage, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m David Bornstein. Peace.