If I portray the days of my youth as somehow different and better, more free and more open than these, I suspect I’ll be blamed for both selective memory and maudlin sentimentalism.
But I have just returned from a visit to my boyhood home of Birmingham, Alabama, and can’t shake this sense of sadness and loss, convinced that city life where I grew up was, once upon a time, slower paced, friendlier, and far, far safer than today.
In conversation with a librarian near my mother’s home, I mentioned the Leave No Child Inside author and his book about which I’ve written here recently. From that, the talk moved to how much I used to enjoy the vacant lot in our neighborhood of Crestwood where my playmates and I made forts, became cowboys and Indians, and watched the stars come out as we gathered outdoors past dark on balmy Alabama summer nights.
The volunteer in the library told her own memories of dances in downtown, after which she’d walk home with her friends three miles to Ensley, west of town. Nobody in their right mind would think of taking such a risk these days, she said sadly. Risk? Just walking home? Why are we so often oppressed by the threat of imminent danger in places once so safe?
I tried to remember: what did our parents fear for their children in those days? What were we warned of?
To look both ways; to avoid petting dogs we didn’t know; and to not take candy from strangers. In all my childhood years I never knew of anyone from my schools that was abducted; or offered drugs; or killed by a drive-by shooter.
We live in a pervasive and escalating climate of fear. Global warming (a real enough threat, I’m convinced) has for the moment replaced the mushroom cloud looming overhead, while down on the ground, a terrorist lurks in every stranger to our shores and violence broods in our games, our music, and our streets. Colleges become killing fields.
And even though the waters here are murky with philosophical, psychosocial and moral-ethical complexity, we must ask: WHY? What lesser value have we come to place on the worth of human life; or what have we forgotten about the sanctity of the human soul once held almost universally true, so that today, death and violence of man against man is so horribly common in pop culture, entertainment and games, and the streets of home?
Finding the answers won’t be easy, but the questions about our fears are bubbling to the surface in our conversations since April 16. Perhaps this will be for us a teachable moment and from the very bad, some good might come.
In this time of immense sorrow and sadness, maybe we will question the role of parental permissiveness and presence in our homes for our children, and re-examine mothers’ and fathers’ examples in shaping their children’s play, their conversation, their judgment and respect for others. Play nice. Share. Don’t call names. Don’t hit back.
Perhaps this adversity will remind us how we were taught as children to take the measure of the stranger or the newcomer not by the sum of his material possessions or nationality but by the belief that he or she is endowed with inalienable rights and worthy by their very existence as human souls-bleeding, loving and hoping just like us. Trust so easily lost can be regained. It must.
Shakespeare referred to man as the “paragon of animals.” And yet, the story of our noble species even during my short part of the drama has slipped a step back towards Darwin’s brutish “nature red in tooth and claw”.
The goods of industry and commerce, with the dominant traits of competition, cold efficiency and survival of the fittest, overshadow the goods of cooperation, trust and unmerited favor. But we are not merely animals driven solely by fear or by our lesser instincts for self-preservation and pleasure and freedom from want at any cost.
If anything positive is to come from the terrible events of the past weeks, then it may be in the fact that we all come back to these difficult and complex questions about the roots of human dignity, destiny and purpose.
What is our story all about? What can we do in our communities and county to swim against the current of hatred, violence, greed and fear? How can we grow together for good and reclaim our hope for peace on Earth, good will toward men?
This essay published 3 May 2007 in Road Less Traveled in the Floyd Press.