When We Don’t Understand

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REM said it best “everybody hurts.” We all hurt for some reason but depending on who you are, the hurt you feel can be inflicted on others. When we hurt, we need help but when help doesn’t arrive in the way we need it, hurt can turn into something else.

I was reminded the other day about a personal experience that I’ll share with you. I lived in Coop City located in the North Bronx. Coop was a rich tapestry of culture, color, and diversity. It was a bubble of sorts and most of us growing up there wanted to escape it. What we didn’t know at the time was that we were living in an experiment of epic proportions.

I lived down on the left side (Section 5). Some people would say that Section 5 was the toughest area to live in but I don’t think there was a difference between there or anywhere else in Coop. Alright, onto the story part..

We lived in building 34 which was close to the water. Behind our building, we had a jungle gym, paddleball courts, and basketball courts. I never really thought about it or questioned why things were the way they were but the Puerto Rican kids would play handball or paddleball, black kids would play basketball. Everyone played baseball and some played soccer or football. In fact, we had some guy that was a champion soccer player always in the back running around with a bunch of kids kicking the ball. No one was left out with that guy.

I would go to the back by the basketball courts to explore near the water. There was a train bridge that I could climb onto and walk out to a post that was sitting like an island in the water.

In order to get to the bridge, I needed to pass the courts.

Looked like this..

Walk past the courts to get the that area, the kids would say things to me. If I didn’t respond, they would come after me. It was easier to take a passive approach vs fight them. It isn’t hard to remember what being punched in the head sounds like. If I was lucky the courts were empty and I could get through the opening of the gate and hang out by the water in peace. On occasion, I’d ask to play basketball with someone if I recognized them. It is true that I wasn’t any good but I was excluded regardless. Being picked on for being small or excluded because I was something other was known to me. I was hurt and it sure did impact me personally but I didn’t hold every 16 year old black kid accountable for the behavior.

Our world is not a fair place. Unless we change the fundamentals of human behavior, it will never be. When we don’t understand or don’t care about how people feel, we create complexity. There are so many issues today where we seek fairness. We seek understanding, and, we seek to be included. We seek to be remediated. We have to apologize for things our parents or grandparents have done. We have to apologize for things we did as children. We have to apologize for who we are. We can’t have discussions or dialogue because it isn’t possible for the other people to understand our pain or our hurt.

What we don’t talk about is the power of forgiveness. We don’t talk about listening to understand. Being empathetic without having to apologize for something we didn’t do. No one ever told me they were sorry for hurting me on those days at the courts. No one ever said they were sorry for excluding me. No one on behalf of some group of people sought out to understand how it hurt me. I don’t have that expectation. Some years later, I was in a program called “upward bound”, we stayed on the SUNY Maritime Campus near Throggs Neck. I was the only white kid in the program. When the summer was over and all was said and done, there was a ceremony where the kids could get up and speak. Some of the kids were taught hate and over the 8-12 week program they came to accept me. One of the kids in his moment to speak said “I didn’t see Howie as white, I saw him as Howie.” At the time, we were just about as old as the kids that rejected me on the courts at Coop. I could have aimed my hurt as a weapon or made assumptions about him. I could have rejected them as I’d been rejected. I didn’t, but I also recognize that not all of them would accept me either. Here is where the complexity lives.

I believe that people have to be educated but people also have to be ready for education. Additionally, if we know the position of a person or group, we have to understand their hurt to a level that makes sense and understand their behavior most likely won’t change. Could you imagine what it would be like for me to be at a Louis Farrakhan event? That said, he was born in the same place as me. I wonder what we could say we have in common? What hurt him to give him the great clarity that he has? I understand the boundaries and his clarity of thought. It doesn’t make for an opening of understanding and acceptance between us. I have to live with this.

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Finally, the reason I chose to write about this today. My youngest son and I went to a pizza shop that we hadn’t been to before. Four young teenagers were sitting behind us at the place. One of the kids had started in on me. He said “hey, hey, hey” until I turned around. When I looked at him, I saw a young black kid with fairly long dreads. He had wide eyes and he was a good looking young man. My son was watching me to see what I would do as the kid started to amp up to get my attention. I turned around and looked at him. I paused for a moment while I looked at him in the eyes and I said, “how are you doing?” I think he expected something else. The other boys were looking to see what he was going to do next. I turned around and continued to eat knowing that he could be put off by my turning away from him. My son was watching them, they turned their music up and made noises. We finished eating and I got up and looked at them and said “have a good day boys.” My son asked me what I would have done if they attacked us. He asked about when to attack them. I told him that people act out because they are hurt in some way. We can’t always understand their hurt and they can’t always understand ours. That by itself isn’t a reason to take action and share our hurt. Retaliation and violence always leads to more hurt. That said, if they attacked us, I would have defended us and I would have stopped them.

Instead of assuming that you could never understand what I go through. I am assuming the opposite. I am assuming that you do understand and that you have your own story. I believe the way our world will get better is if we acknowledge hurt and pain but we don’t drown in it, ask others to suffer for it or inflict it on others. Everybody hurts, sometime…

What do you think?