At the Long Beach Trader Joe’s I frequent, I often come across a man outside. He sits with a sign saying he is homeless, laid off, hungry and grateful for assistance. He does not seem too much older than myself. As you walk by, he does not ask for anything – particularly not money, alcohol or cigarettes. He is not on drugs. He is not shouting at patrons of the store. He is not following anyone inside. He keeps his head down unless you interact first.
Recently, I asked him, “how can I help you today?” And it was difficult for him to even look me in the eye as he thanked me and requested a salad. Heartbreakingly polite and humble about the fact that he needed assistance.
A couple weekends ago when I went to Trader Joe’s he was there again. Only this time, Trader Joe’s had parked right beside him a sandwich chalkboard proclaiming something along the lines of the following message:
“Trader Joe’s just not support the solicitation or loitering of anyone outside of our store. Please feel free to ignore such persons as you go about your shopping!”
Part of me really wanted to take a photo of this. The other part felt like that would deny dignity to the man sitting right next to the sign, whom the message was obviously directed at. The exact wording escapes me, but the part I am sure of, the part that has haunted me for weeks now, was:
feel free to ignore such persons
Written in a cheerful, flowery script, with an exclamation mark following the phrase.
Trader Joe’s felt the need to give people permission to IGNORE HUMAN LIVES.
Without getting too charged up, let me tell you that I find this attitude absolutely more offensive than the homeless man’s behavior. Shame on you, Trader Joe’s. Shame on you, patrons of Trader Joe’s who complain about the presence of a homeless man sitting outside. Shame on you, because ignoring human lives is exactly the underlying root of so many of our society’s problems.
On a related tangent, recently, as I was walking through downtown Los Angeles, I noticed someone had stenciled on the sidewalk, “HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE.” This is such a heartbreaking reality. When we think about people who hurt people, whether it is mass shootings or crime rates or violent transgressions, who are the people that are lashing out?
It is the hurt people.
Where does this hurt begin? It commences the moment we isolate, ignore, dehumanize, marginalize. It blossoms in the moment we strip away dignity, human rights and respect. Anyone subscribes to an attitude of thinking they are superior to those in different life circumstances is fostering an environment of negativity and disconnect.
Connected, positive, happy citizens are generally not disrupting society. Those who are participating in these actions are those who have been shut out of community, denied love and told they are not good enough. We look down on India’s caste system, but at a different level we definitely allow similar ideals to prevail in our society, without recognizing them for what they are.
Among approximately seven other books, I’m working through The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell right now. From it, I was reminded of the Broken Windows theory (something I half slept through the first time around in Intro to Sociology circa 2009). Essentially this criminology theory postulates that urban disturbance (shout out to my own alliteration) is this downward spiral progression of self-fulfilling prophecy, where little crimes such as broken windows or graffiti are what cause big crimes such as murder and illegal drug business. As the book puts it, “the graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system.” Little indicators that the system is broken make way for people to break it further. If there is graffiti and broken windows around, it signifies to criminals that nobody cares, so a crime done in this setting is less punishable. I guess it is kind of like: which are you more likely to handle recklessly and carelessly — a brand new Tesla, or a junker clunker?
The “hurt people hurt people” stencil coupled with reminder of Broken Windows Theory actually led me to apply the theory to the human psyche. In my theory, the small transgressions like graffiti or broken windows correlate to small missteps like failing to acknowledge an interaction someone sends to you (which is incidentally the number one cause of marital dissatisfaction), or saying something insensitive and not caring to correct yourself. I firmly believe that interactions either build or break – there is no grey area here – so every time we do not act intentionally with love and compassion, we are breaking windows. The more broken windows there are, the more broken hearts and broken souls and broken spirits we create, which is exactly what destructs our society. The hurt people are hurting people. But we are all responsible for hurting those hurt people in the first place.
Another book I’m currently reading is Blue Like Jazz, 74 years behind the curve, I know. I am only a couple chapters in, but one thing that stuck out to me really insanely powerfully was the following statement:
“the path to joy winds through the this dark valley. I think every well-adjusted human being has dealt squarely with his or her own depravity…I think Jesus feels strongly about communicating the idea of our brokenness, and I think it is worth reflection. Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.”
(The Congo reference I loved because Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite reads of all time, but I think what he’s getting at is the extreme darkness of political turmoil, genocide, civil war, rape and other atrocities taking place there; using it as a catch-all of kind of some of the worst degradations of humanity).
But, back to that quote. It is saying, and I agree, I have been trying to get at this point in so many of the pieces I have written on here…any of the larger changes we hope to befall our society are never going to click into place unless we can face ourselves squarely in the mirror each day and commit to stop breaking windows and to stop hurting others, however directly or indirectly.
I am not sure what this means in your life. It could be offering more grace to your spouse, or ceasing to ignore those who are homeless, or letting go of your ill thoughts towards your co-worker. What is that area of your life that you are feeling convicted about right now? Who do you know needs a little bit more of your compassionate heart, and not your hard heart?
I know that my idea of love and community and connection, a society where we are not hurting one another, is radically idealistic in today’s society. My vision is complete compassion, total devotion, absolute affection, undying attention, unquestioning support, extreme selflessness. I fail at each and every one of these aspects every single day. But I believe so strongly that I need to keep trying.
I know this, because I’ve suffered a few broken windows in my own life.
On more than one occasion I have been told by people that I am one of the strongest people they know. Let me tell you something. Strong people don’t just happen. They are built from the circumstances around them.
My strength is both found and destroyed in the loneliness and isolation I often feel from my radical vision of love and connection not being met. I would venture to guess that on occasion I feel just as dehumanized and devalued as the homeless man sitting outside of Trader Joe’s. The difference is that theoretically I “have it made.” I’m completely independent, I’m paying my bills, I have a vehicle and a job and a great apartment and money to spend on hobbies and outings. I grew up in a white middle class family and have never known struggle in the way many of us would define it. While I experience broken windows, I guess because I have material security and basic needs met, it is easier for me to cope. I would never lash out against society, and I hope I never hurt others in the way that I have felt hurt. However, because of my capacity to feel so lonely and hurt, I can absolutely empathize with the hurt people who hurt people.
Without the depths of the lows I have felt, I would not possess a capacity for the potential of the heights I strive for. Science doesn’t make sense to me in an expressly scientific context. But Newton’s Third Law, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? That makes so much sense when you apply it to hurt and love. Apply Newton’s Third Law to life and what you find is that the most broken people are the ones with the most potential to love. Yet we never give them that chance because we are too busy keeping them down with the ways we ignore them and marginalize them. And, I would conjecture that it is just as dangerous to OURSELVES to deny love to those who need it most, as it is dangerous for those who are being denied.
So I’m vowing to stop. I’m vowing to acknowledge that often the people who cause us the most hurt are the ones who need the most love back. And that as painful as it is to open yourself up to the rejection that comes from loving them, there is no other way to live. I am vowing to approach each interaction with the intention of building rather than breaking – something I vow time and time again and always need to be better at. I’m vowing to be the kindness that comes along and sweeps up the broken glass from the windows of others who have had their hearts shattered by a world that doesn’t offer them the compassion and attention and affection they need. I’m vowing to use my strength built out of my brokenness to inspire others to raise themselves up and help repair the glass of others. I am vowing not to ignore a single human life or possibility for interaction. And I’m extending an invitation for you to join me. Please join me.
There’s two more points that I couldn’t get to fit in anywhere here without going off on majorly unrelated tangents, which I’ve already done enough of. But I will just briefly highlight them for you to consider yourself:
- If you operate on a religious basis, the model I am striving for in terms of loving others and deliberately avoiding creation of broken windows, even when it is hurtful and not always easy? That example comes DIRECT FROM JESUS. We are always shattering our own windows and the windows of others with the transgressions we make, and we are LOVED ANYWAY, and we are called to do this as well.
- If you are skeptical of how much I’ve emphasized the need for connection, community and compassion, and all of my long winded analogies do not make sense to you, just look at the way we prioritize social connection via our smart phones. If the way we perk up at a notification does not equate to a cry for more connection, albeit in an entirely misplaced and devastating way, I don’t know what does.