In a thoughtless effort during leisure time at my parent’s house the other day, I reached randomly for a book lying on the living room coffee table. My choices were limited; there were two family picture albums, a few of dad’s guitar magazines, and adjacent to those, a rather thick book of extremely old binding. In a faded font, the words “Class of ‘56” were embroidered on the front of it. It was one of my father’s school yearbooks.
With a soft curiosity, I pick it up and carelessly flip through the pages. After only a minute of hasty scanning, I find I am strangely touched by what I see.I only know one of these kids – and that man is the man I call father – but most bewilderingly, I want to cry at the sight of these kids. The yellowed pages with slightly crooked black and white pictures, and the spotty typewriter-style captions underneath them call out to me in a puzzling way. Staring straight into my eyes with each turn of a page are pictures of beautiful children, children now grown, little ones who already reached maturity and took off to live lives of their own. They each had their distinct legacies as they grew; some of them were jocks in school, some of them nerds. Others were class clowns. Some were terribly poor, and a few were privileged with wealthy parents. Some were a little slow, always in the pitied and picked on crowd. Some of them were bullies, tough guys, always breaking the rules. Their faces almost seemed to tell their stories. But it didn’t matter what crowd they were in. Their beaming faces, with proud eyes and penetrating smiles, reached out to me. I was moved as I thought about the lives they lived and the experiences they faced.
All of us have experiences that others would love to share in, and even the negative experiences we’d rather not undergo we still want to know about and learn from. I find myself hungering to know them, wanting to live the lives of my fellow human beings. I want to share their joys and their disappointments. I want to know of their achievements and their failures. I want to learn from them, to take what lessons of life from them I can and make them my own. I want to be stronger because of them.
Wanting to know more, I decide to ask dad about these strangers. “Whatever happened to James Cisneros?” I asked. I watched as dad, listening to me from across the room, preoccupied with a household task, stopped to respond to my question. I watched as his eyes moved to the right side of his head in thought. After only a snap of a moment, his face went from a state of thought to a full-blown “light bulb” moment. For about a half-second, his facial expression resembled that of an eight-year-old’s upon hearing the ring of the final school bell. “Oh, I haven’t thought about him for years,” dad said. In a flash, he decides to come over and pull up a chair beside me and take a trip down memory lane.
Pointing to one picture at a time, with great enthusiasm, dad would say, “There’s Joe Bixby. He died of cancer about fifteen years ago.” “Her name was Amy Connor. I almost dated her at one point.” “John Weiderman was a smart boy like his brother. They both went on to become lawyers.” “Fred Matson was a good friend for years. We haven’t talked since the 70s. I wonder how he’s doing.” “John O’Neill was killed in a terrible car accident. I still remember the day he tried to make a U-turn and was plowed right off the road by a Mac truck.” “Charlotte married her a rich man. She’s still alive and lives fifty miles from here.”
Bringing to life these old photos, my heart pulsed with warmth. It was almost like I was there, watching these children grow up in dad’s old stomping ground, looking out at the 1920’s style buildings and the rusty, run-down cotton gin that still stood in the middle of town, with that aberrant stench in the air from the local chicken processing plant.
There were a lot of differences between then and now, but the differences weren’t that big. Young men, with greased hair and boring white suits, took their dates out to “get some pop” at a diner or watch a drive-in movie. There were gangs too—gangs with names like “The Fastbacks” and “The Bulldogs.” That was what you did back then—you listened to The Temptations and tried to be cool, sewing an image of a mean bulldog with a spiked collar on the back of your hippest black jacket. And not unlike us today, you just tried to get what you could out of life. What more has anyone ever tried to do?
The most stirring thing that was brought to mind was the lesson to be learned here; if we can look at these children as we would our own children, if we can love them and see the value and satisfaction in their lives as much as we can in the experiences of our own, the human race would be a far more peaceful one. It shouldn’t matter to us that these kids are now fully grown. It shouldn’t matter to us that we never met them and will never know them, or whether or not we would agree with them ideologically. What should matter is that we understand and respect their right to personhood, that we understand the human experience and what it means to truly love our fellow man, whoever they are. One has mastered the human experience only when that individual can look at life through the eyes of someone else, be it a complete stranger or a bitter enemy. Even our most hated foe is due understanding; to see the world as he sees it, to walk in his moccasins – and while not agreeing with him – still knowing that his plight of life is no different from my own—that is the pinnacle of social evolution. If we understand this, we’re doing damn well. Our species will never rise above the level of a skull-fracturing savage without this conviction.
We are doing better, but humanity is still half-savage, and in our present state of affairs, we must be. We are in that stage of development where we are still fighting amongst ourselves. Our planet is not yet united. Our goals are still too diverse, too selfish in nature. Socially, we have not matured. On September 11, 2001, the United States – and even the world to an extent – was changed. The aftermath of that horrible day united my country in a way I had never seen before. If only for a brisk moment, we put away our miniscule problems and the prevailing obsessions of self-oriented thinking, and we became a unit. This unit was mindful of one thing—the preservation of the happiness, the safety, and the liberties of the unit itself. Unity came, and as quickly as it came, it went! Like an old man’s woody before the Viagra kicks in, we weren’t ready to maintain it!
We should be fighting the cruelties of nature, not each other. We should be fighting together to claim as our own nearby solar systems and planets for the purpose of making them as useful to us as this world now is. Distant worlds will one day sustain us when our present rock becomes unlivable. So we must unite, but in the here and now, we have to survive. If we must wage wars, then so be it; survival is survival. The problem in fighting to preserve our way of life is that we cannot draw lines properly; we overdo our efforts by engaging in more violence than is necessary. The mark of a good military leader is one who teaches us to fight to win, to show no mercy to the enemy when the situation calls for it. We cannot but try to survive by sufficiently eradicating the enemy and all perilous forces, but to prevent overreaching in our efforts, something must be done before we get this far in.
If only I could have held my enemy in my arms when he was a child, if only causality could have arranged things so that I grew up with him and was his best friend, then things might have been different. If only we could hear the coy exchanges between members of his family at a birthday party, if only we could flip through the photo album and look at his baby pictures, or perhaps glance at the stick-figure crayon drawings he made in kindergarten, things might have been different. But most of those we hate we despise, not solely because of their diverse ideologies, but from our lack of recognition of their humanity. We fail to see what is behind a person’s belief system, to see what drives them to be the way they are, and often, we just don’t want to see or know. It feels better to hate them, to mock their differences and harangue their decisions. Instead of seeing those we hate as estranged family, as distant cousins, we view them as we would a rabid beast or a mindless force of nature with which we can have nothing to do. The next time you find yourself smirking in disgust at the deeds of a kidnapper on the 10 ‘o clock news, take just a quick second to humble yourself by admitting that had you been in his position, facing the same causality, with identical setbacks and hardships, you might have made the same decision. We view our opposition as stupid and brutish. It is our pride, our dogmatic idealism that widens the gap of malice already existing between us. It keeps us from becoming fully civilized.
Communication is another problem. If any person or nation is to be addressed, that person or nation must be communicated with in a language they mutually understand. In a conflict, a party might do their best to preserve the peace, but if the opposition does not possess the like understanding, conflict may be unpreventable. Like a deranged thug who takes to the streets at night without consideration of the consequences of his destructive and dangerous actions, the only language they know is violence and/or confinement. If I am to reach them, I must speak to them in that language. Thus, the rampage and ruckus of our race goes on, for we have limited alternatives. A tiny measure of contempt for our species should accompany every action taken in the handling of all such situations.
There will come a day when our technology will enable us to control our enemies. We won’t need to kill them when we can dominate them and use them as we like. But for now, all we can do is survive any way we can; we have enemies, and we must stop them. It is extremely fitting that those who spit in the face of reason, those who hate freedom and free inquiry, those who trample on the exchange of knowledge, who smirk at liberty, who champion intolerance and seek to bring their hand-to-throat oppression outside of their boundaries to bind upon us, for them are reserved our atom-splitting weapons of mass destruction. It is only proper that their strongholds and training camps be reduced to rubble, and their holy places be turned into pigsties, or worse. If bodies must pile up on the streets, it is not a bad thing if the burnt carcasses present are theirs. And this is the inherent disharmony in our current moral climate.
As a people, we evolve together, and when many of our number hold tightly onto a seventh century mentality, the evolutionary progress of the whole is hindered. Those of us who walk in the honor of enlightenment must ourselves fight to preserve it, but in accordance with the enduring spirit of human dignity, is it not right to consider – before our doom-pronouncing banners of war are raised, before our cremating missiles are armed, and before we bring to our opposition the thundering threat of annihilation – we take at least a moment to remember our brotherhood?