WELCOME BRAD WILLIS TO WWdN! HE’S SHARING THIS SPECIAL GUEST POST WITH US WHILE WIL WHEATON IS AT SEA. SEE MORE OF HIS WORK AT BRADWILLIS.NETand RAPID EYE REALITY. HE’S THE GENUINE (GUY-YOU-PROBABLY-HAVEN’T-HEARD-OF)BEST.
Along the path I walk my dogs, there is a place in the sidewalk where someone once saw an opportunity. On that day so many years ago, a contractor poured the wet concrete into its frame, took care to smooth it and make it level, and departed with hope the work would be left undisturbed.
On that same day, someone else crept up. That person knelt at the curb and, with no apparent concern for straight lines, scrawled a message for future walkers. It was a snapshot–a hot take, if you will–of whatever was happening in that vandal’s mind, a one-word ode to future generations of wide-eyed children and world-weary dog walkers:
I see it every time I walk by, and I wonder just what was happening that day. I picture some kid with a stick in his hand. I see him looking over his shoulder as he drags the stick through the gravel and cement. I imagine him impressed with his ability to forever make his mark. That kid could’ve written anything.
That kid wrote: BITCH.
You can get a good measure of a man by putting him in reaching distance of some wet concrete.
Today, we all have a stick. We call it Twitter, Facebook, or whatever new thing gets angel-funded tomorrow. Every new day gives us a fresh square of wet concrete. Someone kills a police officer? Get out the stick. A police officer kills an unarmed person? Get out the stick. Politician says something terrible? Stick.
Though I was an early adopter in world of social media, it wasn’t until late 2012 that it started to give me pause. On the day Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six members of the Sandy Hook Elementary staff, my immediate gut reaction was impossible sadness and confusion. Within hours, I saw this post from a guy with whom I went to high school.
I screen-capped it and put it in a folder on my desktop to remind me of the first time I thought, “This is what we’ve become. We don’t go back from this.”
It’s since been said a hundred times over: if the murder of 20 children doesn’t bring America together in change, nothing will.
“Get off your heals (sic),” that guy wrote on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. What should’ve been a cringe-worthy and laughable misspelling looked more like prophecy to me.
No matter what happened—maybe ever again—the time for healing was done.
It was apparently time to fight.
We all like to imagine we are capable of empathy. If there is any emotion that confirms us as human, it is our ability to viscerally feel another’s person’s pain. There are those among us who take pride in their empathy but who haven’t admitted they’ve developed a whole new sense of it. They are people who are only able to feel the pain of people like themselves. If it happens to someone else, if it happens to people of a different class, color, or creed, the empathy turns into something else.
When the tornado drops on Oklahoma, they think, “That’s what rednecks get for living in Tornado Alley.” When the fires jump from one mountain to another and burn $5-million homes, they say, “That’s what big money will buy the rich folks in California.” When the hurricane destroys historic New Orleans and crime starts to run over the Ninth Ward, they mutter, “What do you expect? It’s a sinful city full of poor people.”
It’s striking what the half-life of compassion has become. When we’re staring at tragedy in real time, we can find a way to relate to the parents of the dead children, the newly homeless, and the people who have nothing left but the memory of a place that simply isn’t anymore. But when the night passes and the tragedy is reduced to replayed tape, many of us fall back on some sort of innate selfishness that only allows our empathy to extend so far.
If that were as bad as it ever got, it might not be so terrifying to live in 2016. Instead, with each new patch of wet concrete, we see a more pronounced sort of faux-empathy. It’s the polarized kind that, in the face of a massacre, makes people ask first about the race and religion of the killers and their victims. It makes people ask if the unarmed victim of a police shooting had a criminal record. It makes people ask a rape victim if she’d had anything to drink. It makes people see a drowned child and insist refugees be quizzed on their understanding of Christianity before being given safe haven.
Polarized empathy isn’t empathy at all. It’s apathy of the worst and most destructive kind. It is, in fact, apathy that allows people to disguise rank hate as righteousness.
Situated along another sort of trail in the BITCH sidewalk’s home state, there was a man who wanted to be the leader of his country. Behind in the polls and in danger of tarnishing his family’s already-dubious political legacy, that man took an opportunity to send his own one-word message, one he hoped would endear him to the people and cement his reputation for future generations. That man wrote “America.”
This was the same state where ten months earlier a police officer was charged with murder for shooting an unarmed black man. It was the same state where nine people were shot to death in a church. It was the same state where Jeb Bush hoped to win the hearts and minds of South Carolina voters.
It maybe spoke less about Bush than it did the Presidential race as a whole. The level of discourse had devolved so much that the flailing member of the Bush dynasty went straight to the heart of the matter. Moreover, it probably spoke less about the Presidential race than it did the whole country. In a nation so polarized by its own manufactured empathy and righteousness, perhaps it seemed a pandering one-word clarion call was Bush’s last best chance.
Jeb (or, in fairness, perhaps a member of his campaign staff) wrote “America.”
I stared at that one-word caption to the photo for a long time, and it made me think, in spite of everything else I wanted to believe, “You know what? He may just be right.”
I’m 42 years old, and I have two young boys. They are confounding little creatures I treasure like nothing else I’ve ever known. Without them, I’d have trouble finding a reason to get out of bed on most days. In a way, that terrifies me, because I sometimes wonder if I might have made some different decisions if I’d been able to look a decade ahead and see what our society would become. I wonder if it was cruel of me to introduce innocent children into a world that would eventually become so violently and vituperatively polarized in every meaningful way. I am ashamed to say that there are nights I stare at my dark ceiling and wonder if my boys would’ve been better off not being born.
There is only one thing that keeps me from completely losing it.
Believe it or not, that sidewalk with the word BITCH written on it actually leads to hope.
It’s exactly a block and a half from that vandalized square of sidewalk to my sons’ elementary school. It takes just a couple of minutes to close the distance between the two, and when I do, I see children of every color and creed. They know about American politics. They know about Sandy Hook. They know some of their dads have guns and some of their dads do not. They know what it means to be a Christian, a Muslim, or from a house that doesn’t practice any religion at all.
A few months ago, I went to my younger son’s classroom for a career day presentation. Against one wall my son stood with two other students, and they gave me a brief presentation on what it means to be a police officer.
“They protect people. They keep us safe. The help lost kids find their way home.”
I stood there listening and thinking about the past two years of news. I thought about the American racial divide. I thought about the politics of policing. I thought of the police who died in the line of duty and the unarmed victims of police shootings. I thought about Americans’ polarized empathy and the screeching sound of all of us carving our American graffiti into already solid concrete.
I thought about all of that as I watched these three kids laugh and giggle. For that moment I forgot all about every hateful, spiteful, prejudiced, xenophobic, bigoted, and apathetic thing I’d read over the past decade, and I had hope that maybe these kids could write something different.