I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. As I sit here on a Thursday night, I’ve put down my phone and the TV is silent, but I can still hear all the noise out there in the world. My ears are ringing. I am craving silence and rest. Rest from the violence and the chaos and the fear and the pure hate.
I imagine all of us wake up every day wondering “What fresh new hell is this?” as we turn on the news or scroll through social media. We’ve been through a lot in the last few months, haven’t we? Plague, mobs, riots, death tolls, natural disasters…. headlines we once would have thought could only be found in novels. But it’s what my daughter, as a six-year-old, would have called “real true life.”
Through it all there have certainly been heroes and bountiful acts of kindness and generosity. And I celebrate that every chance I get. But the truth is, at the root of so much of what’s happening today is what my grandmother would have called “pure T meanness.” I’ve never known the origin of that phrase, but it sure does fit. Meanness. Pure T meanness. And it’s just so ugly.
I am not taking a political stance here in this column, so please don’t read a party line into anything I say here. Politics, in my opinion, is the least of our problems. We’ve forgotten, we citizens of the world, how to be kind. As a whole, we celebrate the lawbreakers, the renegades, the bad guys. Kindness is seen as a weakness, a passive way to live. Everyone wants the right to scream at the top of their lungs exactly how they feel and what they believe, and in the process, they’ve forgotten that taking someone else’s feelings into account is the mark of a grownup. From our leaders down through every level of society, kindness has become a rarity.
Policemen are no different from every other group of people. There are some good ones and some bad ones. Some are kind and some are mean. My grandfather was a state trooper who wasn’t afraid to arrest the governor of this great state for driving under the influence. Even when it meant he became a target for meanness from the higher-ups. My cousin, Roger, was a police officer, shot in the line of duty while trying to protect a child from parents who were so full of meanness, they’d gun down an innocent man in front of their son before they’d obey basic laws of the land. Blaming all law officers for the behavior of some is a prejudice of its own. And it’s mean.
Watching someone die on video is not something I ever wanted to do. But I did. We all did. We watched someone struggling to breathe while another human being pinned him to the ground. For eight long minutes. That’s something I’ll never be able to erase from my memory. And maybe I shouldn’t. It’s a reminder of what hate looks like. Because to feel a man’s life drain out of him while you press him into the street requires meanness. Pure T meanness.
What must it be like to be a mother and know the whole world is watching your son die over and over and over on cell phones and televisions and laptops all around the globe? I simply cannot imagine.
All of this weighs on my heart as I go to work every day and deal with sick patients and people who are scared of COVID-19 and their own particular health issues. But lately, even the patients I talk to have picked up the mantle of meanness. And today was the breaking point. Caller after caller was hateful. Many of them yelled at me. Some cursed. At the end of the day, when I was worn down and ready to give up, an 80-year-old man said something so vile to me that I can’t print it here. And I cried.
So here I sit, like a tire with all the air let out of it, too exhausted to do anything but not sleepy enough to go to bed. Across the room I see my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s worn and loved. I’ve taken that book with me on airplanes and into waiting rooms and to the beach and to the mountains. Every time I’ve moved, it’s one of the first things I unpack. I read it at least once a year because it means more to me with every reading. Atticus Finch, the wise and gentle and always kind father in Harper Lee’s classic is who I wish I could talk to right now. He surely would know exactly what to say. Because I surely do not.
I take it off the shelf, and it falls open to the part where an angry mob is approaching the jail where an innocent black man who is accused of raping a white girl sits behind bars. And right out in front of the jail sits Atticus Finch. He is waiting, calm and patient. He tries to reason with the men, in his soothing way. But it’s not wise Atticus who changes the minds of those bent on violence. It is his daughter, Jean Louise (she goes by Scout). In her childlike innocence, she addresses one of the men. She says, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.” When he doesn’t answer, she says, “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember?” And suddenly the men are no longer a nameless mob, but people who live in the same town and know each other. They are neighbors. In their shame, they can barely look at each other. And they lay down their hate and walk home.
Scout is the key. Kindness is the thing. The kindness that sees straight through hate to the heart of who a person is – that’s what the whole entire world needs. And we need it right now. Because meanness is a burden that will break a person’s soul. And aren’t we all just so tired?