I ride the 41 bus to and from work in downtown Seattle. My house is about a 10 minute walk from the largest mosque in Seattle, and thus I share my neighborhood with Muslim families from Africa and Asia. So I ride in to work every day with people in every form of Muslim dress: burkha, hijab, simple headscarf, to no headcovering at all.
Sometimes, as I’m riding the bus, I think about my family, in Middle America, telling me of their fear of Al-Qaida, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood. In my hometown people actively protested against a Muslim veterans group marching in the Veterans Day parade. If they knew I was on a bus full of “those Jihadist Islamists,” what would they think?
Then I look around the bus, and there's one constant: All these Muslim women on their cellphones texting, reviewing Facebook and Instagram, listening to music. Just like every other person on the 41 bus.
We fear “others,” people who are not like us. And it’s not just Muslims vs Christians, it’s religionists vs atheists, Republicans vs Democrats, Apple vs Microsoft, even people who read The Nation vs people who need the latest Kardashian news.
We need “others.” We need them so that we can define ourselves as the right thinking, right acting sorts, even when our thoughts and actions aren’t exactly the best. It’s easy to “other” someone. And each of us, no matter how hard we try not to, does it. We need someone to frame our beliefs and actions against. So we “other.”
Last year I chaperoned my daughter’s class on a nature sleepover trip to a local camp here in Seattle, one oddly positioned in between a housing addition and a golf course. Her school draws from the same neighborhood as the mosque, so you see the same mix of Muslim children in the school body.
(One thing I like about her school is that it draws all races, ethnicities, and income levels. The school ran an auction that drew multi-thousand dollar bids for African safaris and primo parking spaces the weekend before it ran a food drive for students and their families that were food insecure. Seattle can be a homogenous and segregated town; it’s good to be a part of a community that refuses to buy into that.)
At one point one of the boys, a Somali fifth grader that was almost as tall as me, got separated from his nature group wandering the woods; I was asked to get him back to his group.
He didn't know much English, and I'm an introvert with new people, but we did the best we could to communicate.
As we got deep into the woods, he stopped talking and started looking around. Tall firs and pines, birds, ponds with tiny fry and water walkers. And he was wide eyed to it all. I remember explaining water walkers to him — how they move on the surface tension of the water, and it fascinated him that they could do that, walk on water.
So, here’s this boy. His family emigrated to America as refugees from a generation-old civil war. His family lives just a few blocks from my house, he’s learning English, and they’re trying to make due in this cold, rainy, ugly lovely town in this alternately welcoming and "other"ing nation.
And he’s looking at these tall trees he’s never seen before, these bugs walking on the water. All things I’ve taken for granted.
"Wow," he kept saying over and over.
These “other” people are just like us. They live, they die, they eat, they stare at their Facebook feeds on their cellphones. But we forget this. We are quick to call people wrong, call them Evil when it’s their thoughts and actions that are off.
And people are often wrong. Heaven knows how many times I’ve stared in disbelief at whatever wrongness is bubbling through my social media feeds. Bad medical advice. Simplistic political thinking. And sometimes, they’re just being assholes.
But you can call someone wrong without denying their humanity. And you can recognize strangers, others, as different without living in fear of them.
You can grant them dignity, even as they may not grant it to you. When so many wish to deny dignity to others, the most unexpected, and empathetic, thing to do is a simple acceptance that the other person is a human just like you. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." Our actions towards those who represent "the least of these" demonstrate how willing we are to give empathy and dignity to those we, or society, judge to be "unworthy" of it.
I cannot say it’s easy. I cannot say I’m any good at it. Sometimes the pinprick of fear comes to me on the bus. But when I see the cellphones, when I watch the awe of an elementary school kid, I remind myself that I’m just as scary to them, and it’s OK, we’re all dealing with our own personal shit, but dignity and empathy will get us through the day. And, ultimately, it will allow us to push back against the terror and fear so many profit off of with their words, actions, and bombs.