By JIM McKEEVER
For the past few months — has it been longer? — I’ve half-jokingly said that we should change the name of this website to “Sense of Despair.”
It pretty much sums up where many of us have been lately, whether it’s the pandemic that won’t go away, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lies spewed by hypocritical politicians and television personalities, another mass shooting or the continued erosion of civility in society.
Some days — most — it feels as if we’re just waiting for rampant violence to run amok, for innocent people to run out of luck and find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The general sense of safety, which of course not every demographic in this country enjoys, seems to erode day by day.
When the pandemic first hit more than two years ago, the catchphrase became, “Stay safe.” As someone wrote after yet another mass shooting a few years ago, the more appropriate phrase in today’s America is, “Stay lucky.” Which mass shooting was it? It’s hard to remember them all.
So what’s to be done?
How can a website with a small following change things for the better? Is it even possible? What can give us hope for the future? Or are things hopeless?
For guidance (and hope) I turn once again to a courageous man — Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.
During a lecture Stevenson gave in Syracuse, NY, five years ago he spoke of the excruciating work of representing inmates on death row.
Two things he said have stuck with me:
* “Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer.”
* Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things.”
Stevenson told of a mentally disabled client whose appeal had failed, and he had to tell the man he would be executed. The client sobbed but thanked Stevenson for trying.
“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” Stevenson asked after that exchange. And then he asked himself why he continues to do such incredibly difficult work.
“My answer shocked me,” Stevenson said. “I realized I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”
This kind of work, Stevenson said, “will break you. But it is in brokenness that we come to embrace others and feel connected.”
Not everyone can summon the courage of Stevenson — or the willingness to risk the “brokenness” of raw despair — but the rest of us can do something, however small. To the recipient of an act of kindness from someone willing to get close, from someone willing to be “uncomfortable,” it is huge.
Here’s a quick example from my recent trip to the US-Mexico border to volunteer with Team Brownsville in Texas:
Another volunteer told me about a man from Cuba who was among hundreds of recently released asylum seekers who came in one day to receive food, hygiene kits and other supplies.
The man asked if he could have a pair of underwear, since he had been wearing the same pair for five days before being released by the U.S. government.
I wasn’t there at that moment to see the man’s reaction or to speak with him, but I welcomed hundreds of others who were so grateful for a sandwich, a blanket, a toothbrush, sanitary napkins, socks, shoelaces, etc.
Asylum seekers endure incredible hardship, violence and trauma during the journey through other countries before they finally get through Mexico to reach the U.S.
But still …
The act of giving someone a fresh pair of underwear can be, as Stevenson said, “an incredible thing.”
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He wrote this a few days before the massacre of school children and their teachers in Uvalde, Texas.