I am sitting outside of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and it is the lunch hour rush in Uptown Charlotte. Slowly chomping on my pimiento cheese, I found myself fully engaged in some of the best people-watching I've experienced in a long time.
From my perch on the side of a garden wall, I really can see most of the foot traffic moving along this face of the building right next to the "Shiny, Disco Chicken" sculpture (this is not it's real title). It seems inescapable for human beings of any age to avoid such a shiny object. Classes of children on field trips and lunch goers a like, stop to touch and ogle over this strange towering creature.
Not too many folks have taken notice of a phenomenon that I think is probably a very common occurrence. Just under the statue is a small group of elementary school youth. They are sitting crossed-legged and are whispering. Every few minutes, as someone walks by closely, one of them will smile and wave. I remember this game well. My sister and I used to sit on the rock wall that lined our road and waved to folks who drove past. We actually considered the ones who waved back were "good people" and the ones who didn't were "bad people". This came to us so naturally as kids. Today, these children seem to be playing the same game.
So far, in the last 25 minutes, I am on the only person who has waved back to any of them. Don't get me wrong, they are not being obnoxious. They are pretty cute, actually. They are simply waving to people as they pass. Some busy adults have glanced at the youth, some have stepped past them like they weren't there, but I can truthfully report that no one has smiled or waved back. When I was finally chosen for a wave and returned that wave promptly, the little boy so was thrilled that he nearly toppled off his seat on the edge of the garden wall to tell his friends that someone waved to him.
This is troubling to me. I am wondering about the significance of this innocent gesture. These little children want to be seen and noticed, but I think this gesture has more of an impact that just that. I think they want to connect to someone.
Avatar has gotten a lot of acclaim both positive and negative, but whatever you thought of the movie doesn't really matter for this post. What stood out to me in that piece was the concept of how the native people said they loved one another. They actually didn't say the word "love". When they loved someone they would simply declare, "I see you." I found this to be profound then, and I find it to be profound today.
"I see you." Think about the implication of that line. I am looking at you. I am taking notice of you. I recognize that you are a living breathing creature. I am giving you a single moment of my time to show you that I know you are living. But just like those little kids, being seen isn't the only thing we desire. We want to connect and that connection means the world to us. I believe we were made to need it.
I once heard a man speak at Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte. He was formerly homeless and was recounting that terrible period of his life. He explained the long complicated tale of how, little by little, he lost everything that made him feel human and worthy. When he was down to only the clothes on his back, he plunged into an awful depression. Unable to make any moves towards a job or a connection to his family, he was sitting on one of our benches at the center of Charlotte. He sat there for hours just watching people go by. He said he kept thinking to himself, "If one person just looks me in the eye then I will know that I am still alive and I will have the courage to hope that my life can change." He sat there for three hours and not a single person looked at him. He crawled to a back-ally and in his despair he wept the rest of the day.
That story has stuck with me. "If one person looks me in the eye then I will know I am alive."
I know in our world today, we believe there is a lot of turmoil and danger. Strangers can be deadly and friendly faces can be mistaken for a come-on. But what if we all moved past that a little bit? Could we generalize too much? What would the world grow into if we did not fear one another in this way?
The joy that leaped into that little boy's face when I returned his wave cost me nothing. The despair that fell over my neighbor at Urban ministry when no one met his gaze, also cost nothing, but think of the fruit! The dignity that is returned in a glance, a nod, a wave, can literally be life changing. These are very simple acts that can transform lives and entire communities.
We can do nice things all day for people. We can give money to non-profits and shelters, we can go into elementary schools and tutor little kids, but I think the rubber really meets the road when we are actually walking down it. When you are away from those places where you are obviously meant to serve, how do you treat people? When you are just going to lunch, who do you ignore? Who do you speak to? I wonder who I have passed without realizing it. I wonder how many little children have smiled and waved at me and then dubbed me a "bad person" for not noticing them. I don't think I am a bad person for that, but I do think the fruit of that gesture is.
If we can't wave at a cute little kid then how will we ever be able to look a desperate man in the eyes when his very life depends on it?
Human dignity begins with a glance, turns into a nod, and transforms with a smile and a wave. These are the simplest gestures that ultimately say the same thing, "You are worthy. You are living. You are loved."
This is powerful.
I see you.