As a refuge, as a threat, as a place to live
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
I am often asked how I can stand my work. . . . Not only the uninitiated, but other nurses and physicians often dislike this “gutter work” that I do: part-time charge nurse in an old, not very good, urban nursing home, working with the sickest patients, the ones who won’t recover from an unfortunate age. Some of the nurses I work with are always looking for a “better” job, competing with thousands of other nurses for the hospital positions grown suddenly scarce in recent years — hospital jobs where patients come and go quickly, and sometimes get well. . . .
I have to remember to temper my criticism of the aides, who work at least as hard as I do in a job of numbing repetition and labor. Hardest to remember when so much is left unfinished is what I have managed to do. I think I’ve been of no help at all, and then realize how little help I’d be if I got discouraged and quit. Every task, no matter how late, every kind word, no matter how brief, makes a difference.
“Why I Like Dead People,” Sallie Tisdale, November 1985
Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are, in fact, one and the same. The problem is that we are taught behaviors that disconnect us from this natural awareness. It’s not that we have to learn how to be compassionate; we have to unlearn what we’ve been taught and get back to compassion.
“Beyond Good and Evil,” Marshall Rosenberg, interviewed by D. Killian, February 2003
One of the few ways to feel whole nowadays is to participate in these rituals of lament. To stand at the Vietnam Memorial or at the AIDS quilt can be a very healing experience. It feels very appropriate to just stand there and let the tears come down. Sometimes someone else’s tears provoke you, just someone standing near you; you don’t even know who he is. That’s another definition of what I call the water of life, when those tears come from that deep well of human sympathy, human sorrow. At that point we’re human. We’re connected.
“By Fire and Water,” Michael Meade, interviewed by Sy Safransky, January 1994
As a real-estate agent I was never rich, but I worked and socialized with wealthy investors and raised my kids in an upscale neighborhood.
I had bought some run-down apartment buildings as an investment, and I’d become good friends with a couple of the tenants, Jack and José. Jack, who struggled with addiction, had knocked on my door one day after getting out of jail and asked to do some snow shoveling. José was an elderly Cuban refugee who lived on disability and food stamps. He often invited me in for Cuban coffee or a light lunch and told me stories about his adventures in Cuba.
When the market crashed in 2008, my income dried up, and plummeting real-estate prices left me with no equity. A single dad with three teenage kids, I was broke and depressed. My friends and neighbors avoided me. Only Jack and José offered to help. José gave me half his groceries on several occasions. Jack, who had relapsed and done another stint in jail, came to see me after he was released. I was completely out of cash and needed to buy some milk, bread, and eggs. Jack looked in his wallet and said, “I’ve got forty dollars. Why don’t you take twenty and get some food?” He gave me half of all the money he had.
“Being Broke” (Readers Write), Will Rolf, May 2018
When you sit down with the Bloods and the Crips as Bloods and Crips, you just reinforce the symbols and ethos and dynamics of the gang. You need to take them as individuals and talk about their leadership in the neighborhood, their roles as men in their community, and what they can do to reduce the violence. You get them to take on responsibility. Then you have them at the table as community leaders — not gang leaders. The gang doesn’t get mentioned.
“Both Sides of the Street,” Connie Rice, interviewed by Diane Lefer, April 2008
We often complain about other people’s fundamentalism. But whenever we harden our hearts, what is going on with us? There’s an uneasiness and then a tightening, a shutting down, and then the next thing we know, the chain reaction begins and we become very righteous about our right to kill the mosquito or yell at the person in the car or whatever it might be. We ourselves become fundamentalists, which is to say we become self-righteous about our personal point of view. Jarvis Masters, who is a prisoner on death row, has written one of my favorite spiritual books, called Finding Freedom. In a chapter called “Angry Faces,” Jarvis has his TV on in his cell, but he doesn’t have the sound on because he’s using the light of the TV to read by. And every once in a while, he looks up at the screen, then yells to people down the cellblock to ask what’s happening.
The first time, someone yells back, “It’s the Ku Klux Klan, Jarvis, and they’re all yelling and complaining about how it’s the blacks and the Jews who are responsible for all these problems.” About half an hour later, he yells again, “Hey, what’s happening now?” And a voice calls back, “That’s the Greenpeace folks. They’re demonstrating about the fact that the rivers are being polluted and the trees are being cut down and the animals are being hurt and our earth is being destroyed.” Sometime later, he calls out again, “Now what’s going on?” And someone says, “Oh, Jarvis, that’s the U.S. Senate, and that guy who’s up there now talking, he’s blaming the other guys, the other side, the other political party, for all the financial difficulty this country’s in.” Jarvis starts laughing, and he calls down, “I’ve learned something here tonight. Sometimes they’re wearing Klan outfits, sometimes they’re wearing Greenpeace outfits, sometimes they’re wearing suits and ties, but they all have the same angry faces.”
“The Ultimate Kindness,” Pema Chödrön, September 2006
When I was young, I frequently walked past a house where a dog lived. The house did not have a fence, and the dog would look up placidly and watch me walk by, never moving from his spot.
One day the owner erected a fence. After that, whenever I passed the house, the dog would come tearing across the yard and bark loudly at me.
“Fences” (Readers Write), Nancy Solkowski, August 2009
We need to realize that the modern prison is not the only mode of justice. In South Africa, after apartheid was abolished, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to address the massive human-rights violations that had occurred during the apartheid era. It practiced something akin to restorative justice, allowing victims to confront their victimizers and encouraging reparations. In Greenland there were no prisons until 1976. People who’d committed acts of violence were often taken in by northern fishermen and “reeducated.” In Samoa the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s family and community traditionally offer restitution and an expansive apology to the victim for acts of harm both large and small.
None of these practices is perfect — far from it. And they can’t all be replicated in every culture around the world. I’m not saying we should find one solution and implement it in all situations. We need to get creative in figuring out what we can do to prevent violence and heal the damage caused by it instead of just putting people in prison.
We could start by making sure everyone has housing, food, and health care, because when people’s needs are met, they are less likely to commit crimes. And we can get to know our neighbors and nurture healthy relationships with those around us, because in a safe society people look out for each other in both good times and bad.
“Criminal Injustice,” Maya Schenwar, interviewed by Tracy Frisch, June 2015
As I was drawn deeper into the epidemic, I faced problems for which I felt totally unprepared as a physician. The analytic processes that I’d been taught, the medications whose uses, benefits, and side effects I had memorized — indeed, the entire approach to care that I had learned — all seemed useless against this new and frightening challenge. Paradoxically, by stripping away much of what I was accustomed to doing for my patients, AIDS brought me closer to what was once the traditional role of a doctor. Before the arrival of AZT (which rendered AIDS “treatable,” though not very effectively at first), all I could do for my patients was be there for them, accompany them through their illness, and witness and relieve their suffering. I had never experienced such a clear connection to those I treated. I learned that this role — of an engaged witness, helping patients through their illness — defined my greatest usefulness as a physician.
“Surviving the Fall,” Peter A. Selwyn, July 1998
I recall the night eight months ago when Hurricane Andrew struck. . . .
When it grew light enough to see the stooped trees and flooded streets, a tiny, remote voice on the radio said it was almost over. We crept outside in the ferocious, icy rain that soaked through my nightgown and stiffened my nipples. A neighbor I had never seen before emerged from his house, and we called to each other, “Are you all right?” I suddenly felt a kinship with this man who lived less than fifty yards away in a concrete-block house like mine, and whom, like most of my neighbors, I had never bothered to meet.
That was the beginning.
“Storms” (Readers Write), Amy Cline, September 1993