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How You See It

Shortly after the presidential election, I got a call from my dad.

“Do you remember your first interaction with a black man?” he asked. I did not. So he began to tell me a story.

I was three. He and I walked down the street. I probably had a red wagon in tow – it went everywhere in the neighborhood with me. I probably wore black and white saddle shoes – my mother made me, I will resent it till the day I die.

And then we passed a black man on the street. It was no spectacular interaction. He probably said hello, and we greeted him back in response. But this was the early eighties, and my father was a child of the sixties. This was no 2008. So my dad was nervous about the future racial ideas of his firstborn son.

And so he asked me, “Did you notice anything about that man?”

Behind his question was so much. Did you see that his skin is a different color than ours? Did you see that his ancestors were slaves in this land? Did you see the pain of his life, the inequality of his reality? Is he different from you or are we all the same?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way we see things, about the way we internalize the reality around us and how we choose to perceive it.

Just the other night, at a swank hotel bar in Los Angeles, I joined a group to watch the latest episode of one reality television show or another. And as we cheered and laughed and socialized, there, in the middle of our cohesive, sat a woman whom none of us knew. She seemed nice, and she did not smell. But upon closer inspection, something seemed off.

She laughed for no reason, and sat and stood with no cause. She seemed nervous and anxious; she tapped her legs and continually looked over her shoulders. And then she would speak without reason, say things that made no sense.

She was, clearly, detached from reality. Maybe schizophrenic, maybe having one type of mental break or another. Who knows. But she sat herself in the middle of our group and went about her thing, regardless.

And then, in a moment especially awkward, she spoke to our group. The words from her mouth were half gibberish mixed with sound English.

From the other end of the room, a woman yells back at our guest, “Yeah, lady. Just keep on living on whatever planet you’re on!”

The disgust was palpable. The contempt seethed through her words.

It was clear that our guest’s reality was so far detached from the context in which we found ourselves that I could not feel anything but empathy for her. I felt bad. I hurt for her.

The prophets of our tradition called out in my mind. Care for the widow, look out for the orphan. Be mindful of the stranger amongst you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The only solace came from the fact that this woman, our guest, had no appreciation of the fact that she was being made fun of. She went back along her way, in her own world, her own universe.

I was sad. Sad that this woman was plagued by such mental disease. More sad that another human could use her disease as a source of ridicule.

Because yes, it was weird and awkward to have a mentally ill woman hanging out in “our” bar. And yes, it was uncomfortable to listen to her rants.

But all those feelings had to give way to the more important emotions: concern for her well-being; hope that she would get home safe that night; realization that my choice was to either accept her difference or just try to pretend that she did not exist; appreciation of her struggle, and how much more difficult it was to be her than it is to be me.

The prophets, the sages, the texts, the Creator, they all stand together and yell to us to choose carefully the way we internalize the reality before us. How will we choose to react? How will we choose to perceive? How will we choose to see it?

See, I set before you blessing and curse. Choose blessing… choose life.

When I walked down the street with my dad on that day during the third year of my life, we stopped for a moment as he asked if I noticed anything different about that black man whom we’d passed.

“Yes!” I said.

His heart skipped a beat. My son’s a racist, he thought. What will he say?

I looked up, and in all my three-year-old innocence, responded, “He’s got a mustache!”

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