Weird moment this morning on the bus: That peculiar Jew guy got on, and I made room for him to sit by me. Because – and here’s the weird part – I was thinking, “‘Cause he’s Jewish; he’s from my tribe. He’s like me.” Huh?
I am not Jewish.
He’s socially awkward, with a chafing, too-loud, high-pitched voice, saying, “Hi, hi, thank you, hello.” and bobbing his curly dark hair to everyone at 5:57 a.m. when all of us on the bus are actively trying to avoid acknowledging anyone else in the world exists because we aren’t quite ready to begin the day yet.
The bus was unusually crowded this morning. A rumpled group of groggy-eyed city commuters interspersed with the strangling reek of chain-smoking addicts heading for the methadone clinic. This funny guy gets on and I saw there were barely any seats left. He’s one of the usual riders, so I am used to seeing him get on, and I know he’s different. I worried that others who recognized him might be less likely to scoot over than me.
It came as a complete surprise to me when I realized that I was feeling responsible for this man; this stranger. I have never spoken to him, never even made eye contact, and yet I’ve always thought of him as Jewish, based on looks alone. I could be totally, completely wrong, but there it is. Perhaps you can forgive my stereotyping. I earned my degrees at Brandeis University, surrounded by Jews, and I love and admire my Jewish Brandeis friends, and think of them as “my people.” And, though no one explicitly invited me, I consider myself welcome in their group. And thus, if this weird guy on the bus is Jewish in my mind, then he is “my people” too. And that means I have to be his people. And scoot over to give him a place to sit.
He wandered to the back of the bus looking for a seat, then returned, and yes, sat next to me.
That is exactly what “Community” is all about. That is why humans are drawn together at an instinctual level. Because together we are a force to be reckoned with. In our communities we look out for each other; we give and then take. The larger my community, the more people have got my back.
Together we are powerful. We do great things as groups, even though individually we can be pathetic and weak. That is how we are able to love the people in our family who drive us crazy. And, that is how we are able to work toward peaceful goals with people who are really different than we are: because we allowed ourselves to get close, to feel a bond, to see them as though they are like us.
I recalled a time, last September, a little over a year ago. We were the first to set up our tents in an unfamiliar campground and I was full of anxiety about being in this place with other campers sure to move in as the day progressed. I get nervous around too many people. Then, a Chinese family moved in smack on top of us, practically. We were two large groups and the campground had assigned us adjacent campsites. Though in theory it was precisely what I had worried about, my unexpected reaction was relief. My thought, strangely enough, was the one I described above, “Ahh, it’s ok. These are my people.”
I am not Chinese.
See, in my neighborhood in Montavilla, I am surrounded by Chinese immigrants. They are my neighbors, they are the kids who bounce basketballs on the side of the street, waiting as I slowly glide past in my car, they are the ones who tell me my cat is not lost, but in their back yard, and who take turns hogging the street parking with me.
How remarkably simple it is to feel like family with people who are so different. All one has to do is be around a stranger for awhile, and that stranger becomes my neighbor Perry, or his brother David, who speaks better English. And from there, it’s not much of an extrapolation to believe that Perry and David probably exist in every country in the world. Why can’t the whole world experience this little delight, and realize how lovely it would be to think of strangers as “our people” rather than hold them in suspicion at an arm’s length?