“Put one foot in front of the other/and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor…”–a song from, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, I believe sung by a penguin
“Step out on to nothing and find something!” –Dr. Cornel West, describing the Act of Faith
So, here’s a kind of Fable/Folktale/Parable, that happens to be completely true…and strange:
A couple months ago, I was out for a walk in the city center (Stadtzentrum) of Wuppertal. It wasn’t a particularly special day, I was getting lunch or a coffee or something. Eventually, I decided it was time to go home, so I began walking back towards the bus stop. This area of the city was the first part I had ever been to, and I visit it once a week–if not more–to do my grocery shopping, go to the bank, or just about anything else I would need or want to do in the city. So I knew my way around pretty well. And yet…I couldn’t find the bus stop.
It’s not difficult. There’s a giant church in the middle of the city, which you can see from anywhere. You start from the church, you go towards the Commercebank, which has
a giant yellow sign that you can’t miss, then you just go strait down that road. You can either go to the Bahnhof (train station), or you can hang a right at the museum and go to Wall and catch the bus there. At this point I had done this, literally dozens of times. Yet, I could not find where I was supposed to go. Instead, I found myself continually coming back to the same spot, in the center with the giant church. No matter what I tried, or which roads I picked…I kept coming upon the same scene.
Around the second or third time, it stopped being funny and started being a little aggravating. It went from, “Well, this is silly, what is happening?” to, “What is wrong with me?” The streets of Wuppertal–which are not large, and all intertwine–can be sort of confusing, but there was no excuse to be walking in circles. It could be explained away once, even twice, since I’m known to walk the same paths, and it felt plausible that I was taking some rights at some incorrect landmarks. But when I started purposefully going in other directions…and still winding up in the same place, I began to question some things.
First, I began thinking about how sad I was. I was feeling frustrated with how slowly I was learning German. I found myself so often thinking, “Wait, what? What did you say? What’s going on?” that it was hard to feel confident that studying in Germany had been the correct decision. Now it was beginning to feel like even walking through the city and finding my way home was beyond my capability. I mean, this must be my fault, right? There’s no way that I could wind up in the same place, coming from three separate directions, unless I was, for some reason, sabotaging myself.
The fifth time it happened, I sat down. That was the point when I began feeling that I wasn’t choosing to come back to this spot, as much as I was perhaps being pulled there. So I decided to sit down and give up for a minute. Why was I feeling so frustrated? Why was I winding up in the same place over, and over, and over again? How could this be happening? Why was I so far away from home? Why was I not trying to make more of my experience abroad? Why do I simultaneously feel angry with myself for being in Germany AND for not trying harder to do better there? What is actually going to make me happy? When is enough actually enough? And then I noticed my bus driving by me, and I couldn’t figure out where it had come from, but I was close to tears and feeling desperate, so I got up, and walked down the street the bus had just come through, trying to think positively.
And then I was back where I started. Again. I was done figuring it out. I didn’t care anymore. I felt my ability to read signs was pretty good…and I saw this as one. I had seen several bars on my walk. I figured I would go to one of them, sit and drink for awhile, read a book. Later on tonight I would find my way back to school, pack my things, and begin heading back to America. What other options were there? There was clearly something wrong with me.
Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. Literally. I turned around and an older man, clothes dirty and worn, hair unwashed, smelling like all kinds of stuff; he looked at me with sad eyes and, with his hand sticking out, spoke in words I didn’t understand and said, “Can you spare some change?” I said, “Ja, naturlich.”
I fished some change out of my pockets. Now, here’s something that has been both fun and a little unsettling about German currency: Anything below 5 Euro comes in coins. So when I get change back at the grocery store, my American brain says, “Oh, loose change, I’ll put this in my pocket and forget about it until it accumulates into some real money.” But, of course, that is some real money already. So I often find myself with upwards of 10 Euro in my pocket, in change. I don’t lose it, I don’t waste it, it just stays in my pocket until I spend it. It’s just strange because my brain says, “The weight of money in your pocket tells me that you have, maybe $2.50, you should buy a coffee if you get a chance.” Then when I actually count it, I realize I could actually go to the movies, get a nice meal, or maybe put a down payment on a car.
So when I found some money for the gentleman in front of me, it was probably around 8 Euro. I gave it to him. His eyes grew wide and he looked at me with gratitude and surprise, “Vielen Dank,” he said. “Kein problem.” I said. And then something happened that never happens in these situations…neither of us went anywhere. We just stood there looking at each other for a minute. Then he started talking. At first I didn’t understand him. Not only was my vocabulary pretty poor, but his accent was thick, and I’m assuming he was slurring his words a bit. But after a couple seconds, I focused more, and I realized he was telling me about his drinking problem. I began asking him some simple questions, if he had somewhere to live, if he had family, and it was only a few minutes later that I realized I was doing this in German. And he understood me, and he answered me. And I understood his answers. And as we spoke, I realized it was the first time that I had found myself openly talking with a new acquaintance, in German, and I wasn’t feeling self-concious about my poor grammar and limited vocabulary. We were two lost guys…just having a conversation. After a few moments it was clear that we were running out of things to say, so I asked, “Kennen Sie, bitte, wo ist ein Bushaelt?” He told me where to go, and after it was clear that I wasn’t following his directions, he waved his arm, walked me down an alley, and pointed across a busy street, and I saw my bus stop. We thanked each other, smiled, waved, and said what you always say when you leave another’s presence in Germany, “Tschuess.”
The most important part of breaking free of the lies of the world and the illusions of my heart: That first step. This is for the simple fact that I have every reason in the world to not take it. There are endless reasons to not begin walking; I’m so busy, I have other obligations, I have to to this and that, I’m too stupid and worthless…and all of these reasons have, for me, been excuses. They are lies in themselves, because they cover up the one, real, actual reason I have: I’m scared. In the end, it’s easier to do nothing. It’s easier to imagine that God has trapped me in the Twilight Zone, or that my own brain is slowly malfunctioning than it is to confront my insecurities and fears. Because they are MY insecurities, they are MY fears, so I control them. I can shift them, I can paint them, I can alter them to suit my purposes and protect me from scary reality for as long as I need to. It’s only confrontations with reality–real people, in struggle with the incomprehensible situation that is the Human Condition–that get me moving.
Erica Gandara is my age, and she is a police officer in the Mexican border town of Guadalupe. This is an area ravaged by the war being waged by the Mexican drug Cartels for control of the American drug market. And it is a war. According to the BBC, the death toll is now 34,612 after four years. And that is not counting disappearances. Think of that. That’s more than 8,000 people a year; from innocent children to politicians, journalists, police, soldiers; all of them punished for simply being in the way. Erica Gandara is the last cop in her town. Just writing that reminds me how much it sounds like a tagline from a movie, but it is disturbingly real. Every other police official in her town has been murdered, or has resigned in an attempt to avoid being murdered. Erica Gandara disappeared on December 23, and has not been seen or heard of since.
This last week, America has been getting glimpses of the reality that lies under and behind all our illusions of security and righteousness. Our inability to take care of the neediest among us, our inattention to our political system, our apathy towards the violent and criminal effects of our lazy and negligent policies…it has all resulted in the tragic deaths and incomprehensible violence that we saw in Tucson last week. But the veil of illusion has not been pulled back far enough, it seems, for us to see that this event was ONE example among hundreds of thousands. Poor communities deal with this kind of violence on a daily basis. Our guns and our lax attitude towards guns, combined with our two-faced nature when it comes to drugs (America’s War on Drugs has created world-wide drug-related crime, AND America is the #1 drug consumer on the planet) has turned Mexico into, arguably, the most violent place on Earth…and brave innocents like Erica Gandara are paying the ultimate price for our behavior.
You can see it in our monuments. We build massive monuments to the shiniest parts of our glorified history; we worship the promise of the bright and innovative future that is made possible by American freedom and excellence.
When I came to Germany, I wanted to see the German equivalent of these landmarks. I wanted to see how Germany celebrates and honors and remembers. Well, there are various monuments and statues, and holy places to visit, but–unlike us–all of them have to do with history, with attempting to understand what really happened, and honor the concrete accomplishments of those who came before. The legends of the land are rooted in history, which means that local traditions and celebrations assist the German people in telling the truth about the sins of the country, and understanding themselves in light of that truth. When Germany dreams of a brighter future, it is not an empty hope, or a romanticized view of its own capabilities. It is a future predicated on the ability to think creatively as a country and solve current problems. It’s a vision that is supported, for example, by the various sites of new, Green Technologies all around the country, making it a World Leader in Renewable Energy sources. Germany’s monuments are not dedicated solely to their prized leaders and fabled heroes, but rather…citizens, the people who make the country what it is.
Germany doesn’t have anywhere near the inequality that America does, and maybe that is partly due to the fact that they don’t hold dreams, or half-true legends at the center of their society, but glorious, average, common workers.
Our illusions are not bad in themselves. It could be argued that we need some illusions–God given vision, hopeful dreams, prayerful wishes for the future–in order to survive. But the great Veil of Illusion that I find myself struggling with, which seems to blanket most of the developed world, is the one that excuses my inaction. These are the lies of the world, the delusions of our hearts, that allow us to ignore the suffering of others in order to remain comfortably asleep. These are the delusions I’m looking to be free from. Because on the other side of the veil are people suffering and dying, paying the ultimate price for my desire to remain asleep. And being free from such lies means to begin walking away from them. And that begins with a single step.
Thursday, in my German Language Course, we found ourselves discussing what happened in America. Everyone was very sympathetic and was anxious to lend me their support and their prayers. I quickly realized I was getting a lot of sympathy for something that was, yes, extremely tragic and, yes, difficult for me to deal with, AND a drop in the bucket of pain and suffering that happens in the countries of my friends and classmates everyday BECAUSE of American policies and actions. I did the only think I knew to do; I apologized to them, on behalf of all of us.
That first step is the hardest, and it’s not one that we usually take voluntarily. But it’s the only way to break free of the illusions that we allow to govern our lives. Without it, we’re trapped in the patterns of our own self pity, our own imagined reality, unable to find the bus stop around the corner.