“Turn to your neighbor,” Arun Ghandi told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.” I was at a global conference at Kennesaw State University, where Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson was giving the keynote. Mr. Gandhi is a potent speaker in his own right. “Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.” There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people struggled in what looked like a cross-cultural arm-wrestling contest. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.
After a decent interval, Mr. Ghandi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly. How many of you asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?” Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question. “See how violence seeps into everything we do? I did not ask you to attack your neighbor, only to get their diamond.”
I had become the fist that needed prying open. An object. How many of us go through our days surrounded by objects and not people? Those around us diminish in humanity until they are each fulfilling a role — they are drivers, or shoppers, or walkers, or service providers. More often, they are problems to be tackled (like me and my fist), obstacles to be circumvented, servants to be ordered, or enemies to be defeated. This dehumanizing of others is what allows genocide and torture on the world stage, but it also has closer-to-home consequences.
Just ask veteran U.S. Marshall Arthur Lloyd. At a crowded strip mall on one of the nation’s busiest shopping streets, the Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, Maryland, he recently had an early-evening encounter that escalated tragically out of control. Lloyd was driving along the Pike in his family SUV, wife and child passengers in the car, when he got into some sort of traffic altercation with a young Navy man, Ryan T. Stowers, some three decades his junior. Stowers was a driver new to the area. Did he cut someone off? Flip the bird? Unclear. But, the Lloyds’ truck and Stowers’ red Camaro pulled together into a strip mall about 8:30 pm and stopped in front of a craft store.
One can only imagine Lloyd’s wife and the children in the truck as they beheld the scene. Words flew. Emotion ran high. Standing, Lloyd badged Stowers, who appears not to have believed it and hopped in his car. The red Camaro began to move.
Lloyd fired three shots, killing Stowers. Some witnesses say Stowers was fleeing. Or maybe he was going to run Lloyd down. His rear window was shot out, as if his car was speeding away when he was killed.
Stowers, when he died, had become an “enemy.” He probably started out as a “driver,” then likely became a “jerk” sometime near the beginning of the incident. At no point, as Lloyd drove along the road as so many of us do, intent on getting wherever we are going, was Stowers a “person.” To be fair, in Stowers’ mind Lloyd surely went through the same progression of objects: driver, jerk, enemy. Never was he a person. Just a problem. If either had seen the other as a person, they wouldn’t have been screaming in the parking lot. Whatever slight, real or imagined, would have been ignored or worked out. Either player could have avoided their fate by simply imagining, just for a moment, that the other person might have a point.
But, in this world in which so few of those around us count as people, Lloyd and Stowers were only playing out one version of what happens when no one is real but you. The victims of the DC snipers, gunned down in strip malls on this very stretch of road two years earlier, were “targets.” The 50,000 who died in the Twin Towers the year before, were “infidels.” That Mini Cooper that just cut me off? Driven by a “jerk.”
What would it look like to treat all those around me like people and nothing less? Hard to say. There is no magic program that will do it for me. I suspect it might look little different on the outside, but very different on the inside. A change of heart would have taken place.
This morning, at my local supermarket, there was a pall hanging in the air. Shelves were poorly stocked, and the staff seemed on edge. One of the familiar faces, one the neighborhood sees each day, had passed away. I’ll call him “Joe.” It was a surprise: a heart attack in a 39-year old. The woman before me in line talked about Joe with the checkout person. She described a funeral so well attended that it had to be held twice to accommodate all the guests.
I knew Joe’s face, but had never spoken to him. Even so, hearing his coworker, near tears, describe the quirky smile on his face as he lay in state, he seemed mighty real. Not a worker at the grocery store. A person. He was a person whose face I had come to know.
Maybe it was the repetition: I saw him each week. Just that small bit of familiarity is enough, maybe, to turn someone from an object or an adversary to a person whom we owe respect, to whom we owe a debt for teaching us what it means to see those around us as human beings.
We cling so tightly to our diamonds. Let’s try opening our fists.