Sunday afternoon, an overcast, somewhat steamy day on the West Side of Los Angeles. I'm in a Starbucks not far from Loyola Marymount University, where I live.
Suddenly a young woman at a table nearby starts saying 'Oh my God. Oh my God!' I look up to find she has left her seat and stares out the glass doors, where four men are fighting. 'It started here,' she says.
I'm not sure what the right response to this is. Do I join her in watching? I realise everyone else in the store has. A few 20-something men smile, the whole thing immediately an inside joke for them to post/tweet/snapchat/distance themselves from. But the rest of us just stand there, like we're in shock.
And maybe we were. Certainly I haven't been in the vicinity of an actual fight for quite a long time. Maybe the torpor that's come over us is a natural response, an inbred riptide of uncertainty and helplessness developed over millennia to keep us away from the chaotic and dangerous.
Still, it brought to mind other disconcerting experiences I've had in the US of late. Like seeing a man and a woman arguing in a coffee shop in an unusually confrontational way, and instinctively considering the possibility that one of them might have a weapon.
Or hearing someone shouting furiously behind a high wooden gate, and immediately considering the terrain around me with an eye on what might protect me from possible gunfire.
Or just the tyranny of anxiety that seems to be more and more looming over our collective unconsciousness, our media's brutal, nonstop fusillade of stories about the latest scary/awful/wacky thing said or done by Donald Trump like a slow-dissolving acid eating away at any sense of wellbeing.
Maybe standing there we weren't afraid about what was happening across the street, but the fraying at the edges that it represents, the insecurity that the gospel both of Trump and against Trump seems to be creating in our society.
"My father worries about my 17-year-old nephew travelling in the daytime to downtown Chicago because there have been 2000 shootings in the city so far this year."
It echoes the same insecurity we hear in the Brexit vote, and the appalling treatment of both ethnic British citizens and immigrants that followed. Likewise, the resurrection of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party. When she came on Q&A, a Muslim man described to her how his family had lived happily in Australia for eight years, without any problems. But once the election campaign began, he suddenly found himself harassed every single day. If it continued he feared for his wife's safety.
Elsewhere we see the repeated acts of terrorism in Europe, the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the seemingly endless war in Syria and endless American drone strikes in the region, growing stridency in China and also Japan. None of it sounds good and where is it all going?
Hesitation is important in circumstances like these not just as evolution's ongoing survival instinct but as a search for wisdom. Former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams posits, in his short essay 'Writings in the Dust', that when Jesus pauses to sketch in the dirt before the adulterous woman and the people who wanted to stone her, he is creating an opportunity for alternatives beyond stoning her. He is opening a space for everyone to consider their situation, to breathe.
I wonder, though, whether some of our hesitation is also something we have to try and conquer. What's that quote from Bonhoeffer: 'Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.' If I want to live in a country where people don't have to be afraid about being shot, or refugees are not trapped in the direst of circumstances, isn't it incumbent on me to do something more than tweet snide remarks and hope for better legislation? What do Brexit or recent elections illustrate if not that the world we live in, whether it's more and more a place of peace or anxiety, is built not just out of external factors but our own choices?
As always, it's a matter of discernment. But faced with such uncertainty — the fact my father worries about my 17-year-old nephew travelling in the daytime to downtown Chicago because there have been 2000 shootings in the city so far this year — it's hard not to be haunted by the words of American civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis: 'If not us, then who? If not now, then when?'
Jim McDermott is an American Jesuit and screenwriter.
Main image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
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23 August 2016
The American Presidential campaign has always seemed to me to be unnecessarily long and convoluted. Others may say it's a necessary process and appropriate. How do we reconcile two different perspectives and not beat each other up about it? Maybe by not attempting to impose but by listening and respecting. Even though Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party message is anathema to many (including myself), if we keep ridiculing her, what is gained?
24 August 2016
As I read your pessimistic muse Jim I could hear Bob responding in my mind - 'the answer is blownin' in the wind'. Each generation has its challenges, world wars, civil rights, economic depression, perhaps if we spent more time on community solutions rather than scary snippets of life tales, our world would become a happier place. I'm afraid I couldn't see much hope in your piece and I wondered whether it was as helpful as I'm sure you are in conversation in real life!
24 August 2016
Yes, Jim, it is completely understandable to avoid conflict and imagine one may be drawn into a situation that could get out of hand. In the parable of the Samaritan, the priest saw the beaten man in the ditch and passed by on the other side, as did the Levite. The Samaritan though, whom the Jews despised, helped out in a selfless way to his cost. He confronted the situation and came up with a practical response. You cant judge a book by its cover and as my father used to say, "Faith without works is dead". Personal safety has to take second place to courage otherwise our "religion" is just yippity yap.
24 August 2016
We have desperate refugees trapped indefinitely on Manus Island and Nauru, while politicians on both sides of the House fail to do the decent humane thing and bring them to Australia.
Only widespread civil disobedience such as that taken by the 'Love Makes a Way' movement will make these politicians change their minds. Readers, over to you!
Roy Chen Yee
07 September 2016
The world the POTUS can choose to live in: the next few PsOTUS to visit China should choose to insist on disembarking Air Force One at Beijing from the security exit just to show that two hundred and forty year old countries have memories as long as thirty five hundred year ones. But, to make it work, they'd have to do something meangingful first about the national debt, or perhaps only about the six trillion dollars of the national debt that is held by non-Americans, or perhaps only about the relatively mere one trillion dollars of the debt held by the thirty five hundred year old country.