What opens us to the possibility of change? What gives us the courage to hear (and respect) a different perspective on the world — even on those precious beliefs we hold so close to our heart we fear losing ourselves if we let go of them?
I wonder what miracle happened in me when I met a man in a St Paul coffee shop half a decade ago. One chance encounter changed my life.
He came up to me while I sat writing and asked for my attention. All the employees and patrons ignored him while he waited for someone who would acknowledge him and ask how they could help.
He stood and stood by the counter. No one ever spoke to him.
All he wanted: a job application so he could support his grandchildren.
I’m not the hero in the story. I’m an idiot. I wanted to be passive Minnesota nice and hide myself behind my computer screen. But he forced my hand when I looked up. I had two choices then: engage or not. I chose engagement because I want to see myself as somebody who welcomes others like Jesus.
And then I got schooled. As he asked what I saw when I looked around the shop, I knew there was a right answer for the question, but I sputtered and came up with nothing other than people typing on laptops.
What I didn’t observe: everyone in the shop was white, except for him. And every last one of us white people had participated in ignoring him.
So much for my desire to welcome people like Jesus.
He didn’t pull punches on calling out my vision problem. He didn’t tread gently for my sake. It wasn’t his job to educate me, but I’m grateful for the way he called me out.
Before that day, I thought of racism as something that existed someplace else, not as something where I was complicit (albeit unconsciously). I understood that reality in an abstract, academic way — but not a personal one.
Through our conversation, I realized that I had a vision problem which translated to something bigger than just the coffee shop.
What made this experience such a watershed moment for me? I could’ve shut down, afraid to face the ugly truth in the mirror.
But, somehow it softened me instead. And it led to a question: what if my vision about the world is skewed? What if others don’t experience the world the same way I do? How will I respond to their stories? What needs to change in me?
And I want to pick apart that moment, looking for some kind of science experiment that I can recreate in other people. But, then was the moment something as simple and magical as grace? Was it timing? Or was there some predictable combination of circumstances that made it possible?
What made me able to take him seriously in that moment, instead of compulsively defending a picture of myself as good and innocent?
Reading A Good Time for the Truth, a collection of essays published by the Minnesota Historical Society about the experience of living in Minnesota as a person of color, I found myself initially wanting to defend a couple of white characters in the essays. And then, stepping back, I found myself wondering, “Why do I identify with this person or that person? Why do I want to doubt the author’s experience?”
I wanted to believe that the white people had good intentions. Maybe they’d be horrified to discover their antagonist role in someone else’s story. Then I remember a line that I read from Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything, “If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Maybe they didn’t mean for their actions to come across in the harsh way, but still they could’ve behaved better. What’s in this desire to assume the benefit of the doubt for the white character?
In his book Manana, Justo Gonzalez writes, “Injustice thrives on the myth that the present order is somehow the result of pure intentions and a guiltless history.”
Maybe, for me, openness to change comes as I’m willing to loosen my grip on the picture of myself as good and innocent. And that’s easier on days when I can see that my value doesn’t come from my perfectionist efforts. On those days, I’m ready to ask “What can I learn? How can I do better?” And perhaps that’s the most helpful stance in opening myself up to change.