I watched a man die the other day. It was a reasonably boring morning until it happened. I now have more gratitude for boredom. I’ve only been a mourner of death, but never an actual witness to dying. Needless to say, it was a jarring experience.
He was an older man, presumably on the plus side of 80. In the minutes before this I was following him into a coffee shop. He wore a distressed, but cherished Veterans hat with traditional old man garments: a quasi-green button down made of 70% cotton—30% burlap sack and a pair of gray trousers with a hem that stopped 3 inches short of his—you guessed it—all black Velcro shoes. It didn’t take long to surmise that this man was fucking magnificent.
What proceeded would be something frightening, but provide me with a beaming example of inspiration and what happens when you don’t have it.
I’d describe a lot of us in America as being increasingly on edge right now. It feels like we’re walking a tightrope. Being on edge doesn’t have to be bad. It frequently narrows our focus. A sprawling landscape is made to be a simple inclusive image that enables us to ignore distractions and focus only on what’s right in front of us. But the edge is also a place where missteps can result in tragedy. The goal is to stand tall and progress forward, but you can’t do that when you’re consumed by the threat of falling. You need to be inspired by something more favorable; something greater.
2016 is an election year surrounded by outrage, fear, and hard truths. America has always been exceptional on a tightrope and we have every resource to stay that way, but lately it kind of feels like too many people are shouting, “Don’t look down!” This is a distraction designed to make us lose our concentration on what’s important. Our response can’t be panic, but it also can’t be lethargy. Neither of these reactions penetrates an inspired entity. The problem is a lot of us are devoid of inspiration.
This is a heavy parallel to make to a morning in a coffee shop, until that morning in a coffee shop becomes the last few minutes of someone’s life. This is my account:
I am grabbing coffee with a co-worker. We’re standing in line behind the elderly man. He orders as old respectable men do: nothing in excess; a small coffee and one donut. We follow this man to a neighboring table, not for any particular reason other than just a subconscious magnetism.
Before the man sits down he notices a little boy at another table and slowly walks over to him. The boy reacts as young children do when senior citizens approach them: he exhibits a face of absolute terror. But the man smiles and hands him a one dollar bill, pats him on the head, and returns to his table. The boy happily shows the dollar to his appreciative mother. This is a momentous thing to watch, not just for being a nice gesture exchanged amongst strangers, but also someone recognizing the innocent exuberance of youth and the importance that they see the world that way for as long as possible (a quality we need to stop chalking up to being naive).
I’m glad you’re picturing a pleasant man and a pleasant morning because both he and it was. And fortunately this is likely the only way the old man remembers it. The picture is about to change for the rest of us.
He situates himself at his table. His smile remains until it is finally interrupted by a sip of coffee. He places his cup back down on the table, sighs, and his weary, but accomplished eyes begin to roll backward. The sound of struggle ensues. He is unresponsive, but still conscious from what we can tell. He is having a heart attack. The EMT’s are on their way. Amongst the anxiety of watching this, I notice that his mind already appears to be a million miles from reality. I can’t help but find this strangely beautiful. His face is pale and lifeless, but another man holding him in his chair says he can feel very slight breathing. The young boy, a dollar richer and none the wiser, aptly exits the store with his conscientious mother. It is still a pleasant morning.
A policeman shows up. He checks the man’s pulse and feels nothing. The officer lays him down and begins CPR. The Ambulance and fire truck arrive and they quickly decide they can’t transport him to the hospital like this. They have to try to save his life on the floor of this coffee shop. A half-hour of compressions, medical equipment scattered throughout, and several attempts using the defibrillator yield nothing. He’s not going to make it.
This happened last week. It has occupied my mind ever since. Watching a man’s spirit and sensibilities depart his body in real time ironically energized those things in me. I was certainly sad, but sadness presents many things, one of which is an opportunity. It makes us more reflective. We’re frequently never the same after we grieve. It’s a shitty feeling, but it’s essential in our ability to evolve. Happiness feels better, sure, but the thing about being on cloud nine is you seldom sense the weight of things just floating in the ether. You gotta get down in the dirt if you really want to discover the root of it all.
As helpless as I was that morning, the best thing I could give this man was my empathy. In just those few minutes of encountering him, it was clear he deserved at least that. But we’re living in increasingly desensitized times, largely because so many of our bedrock institutions have made us lose our trust, and in some cases our faith. And when you don’t trust anything around you it’s easier to act in your own best interest and shield your vulnerabilities. This feeling proliferates as we get older. We call it wisdom, but sometimes it needs to be called out for what it is: being a dick. As compassionate as we could be for this dying man, there’s always some dick aloofly pinching empathy flaccid. Across the coffee shop, not 10 feet from a man’s fight with mortality, there is another man – said dick – who is not just unfazed by the situation, he is flat out disinterested. He continued sipping his coffee and eating his donut, momentarily glancing over almost as if he was annoyed. If benevolence is valued less than coffee and a donut, you’re ignoring a much more flavorful world. I know it is impossible to be concerned with everything that happens to the people around us, but it bothered me to see such a willful display of apathy in a moment that really didn’t deserve it.
Apathy sucks, man. It has a role in everything that is wrong in our world. We all don’t care at some level, but it’s fittingly a low one. I contend that apathy’s greatest combatant is not empathy. Empathy’s role is only valuable once you arrive to it. You first need something to get you there. Nothing creates this movement like inspiration. It is the fuel for all emotion, well-intentioned or not, and the backbone of sustainable achievement. No plan can successfully rally its agents without inspiration, no matter how much CLOUT or PROVOCATION you throw at it. This bears repeating, specifically for the two people whose strategies to occupy the single most powerful position in the world are odiously centered on clout and provocation.
The polls (in addition to any water cooler consensus) bear this out. Our general election contains the two least likable candidates in the last 10 election cycles. Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable rating stands at 55% and Donald Trump bests her – of course he does. He’s the best at being unfavorable, the best! – with a huuge 59%. It’s fair to say the voters who do favor these candidates are not going to change their minds at this point, and that’s fine. They believe in their respective candidates. But remaining is a massive amount of influential voters somewhat for the taking. Sure they align closer with one party over the other, but they are still desperately waiting, begging to be truly inspired. I say this because I am one of them.
I don’t have the blueprint of inspiration for America; after all, I’m not vying to be the leader of the free world. But I am certain it’s not designed with headline grabbing misogyny and bigotry where scare tactics and divisiveness are used to sell a message of security; and it also doesn’t look like the all too beaten path in Washington of knowledgeable, but disingenuous rhetoric that says you greatly understand our government, but not the people you govern. And until the inspiration we seek truly arrives, we have a monumental amount of the country at risk to feel nothing but apathy towards our future.
…Apathy sucks, man.
Again, I don’t know what our candidates need to do to inspire us out of this state of exhaustion. How they plan to address those embarrassing unfavorable numbers will be loudly prognosticated by the pundits, but every time the Trump and Clinton campaigns emit even an aroma of earnestness, it’s been quickly followed up by an action that promotes more finger-pointing, more fear mongering, or more lies. Trump and Clinton are who they are. The coffee is either bitter or stale. Offer something fresh.
Time is short, but inspiration is its own dimension. If an old man’s last few minutes alive can inspire me, it’s never too late to unite us. Where do we find messages of unity right now, in a time with this much contention? I’d suggest honing in on one particular part in the timeline of every major tragedy not just in 2016, but for as long as we’ve been a civilized society. Of all the terrible things happening all over our country and abroad, there has always been that moment in the after math where idealism is actually more functional than reality. When politics don’t matter. When race doesn’t matter. Gender, sexual identity, economic standing, and even religion don’t matter. It exists in a small window of time and it doesn’t take long before the lines are drawn and the politics begin (especially on twitter), but before that, there is always this moment of true inspiration. You feel it when the sun comes up in the wake of tragedy. It’s a fleeting period of time where if you don’t overthink it and you just pay more respect to that feeling in the pit of your stomach, you find yourself entirely empathetic of people. Not black people. Not white people. Not Mexicans. Not Muslims. Not cops. Not Gays. Not gun victims or gun owners. But just…people. And when you stop assigning all these identities and recognize a person for being a person, then right and wrong and good and evil become so much simpler. And inspiration has always thrived on simplicity. Bring us together. Stop pointing us out.
It’s really not supposed to be this difficult. We’re not supposed to use our beliefs and politics to antagonize others. Or cater to them so delicately that we immobilize progress to protect something we all actually acknowledge as broken. Why do we encourage different beliefs and lifestyles and stand up for the disadvantaged as neighbors, friends, and family, but then ignore them as voters and legislators? And why do we allow our differences to so drastically change the game we’re all playing? If you have an answer to these questions other than “we shouldn’t” then you’re overcomplicating it, again.
I’ll remind you of the powerful images on September 11th, 2001 of our citizens standing around the just-collapsed World Trade Center. These are very different people covered in the dust and ash of iconic American strength in our most diverse city. The first thing you notice is how completely similar they look to each other. It is impossible for this image to be distorted by partisanship or to meet anyone’s agenda in our hyper-polarizing media environment. This picture is quite simply, incorruptible. America has never had tragedy without resilience because we’ve always found moments like this that leave us undeniably inspired. We just have to always have the empathy to keep looking.
In the days and months that followed 9/11, we shamefully know what happened. Compassion subsided, politics ensued, and lines were drawn. Everything got so complicated, again.
It doesn’t have to be this challenging. If an old man handing a little kid a one dollar bill inspired me to be better, why is it so difficult to achieve in politics? And if you’re rolling your eyes at the simplicity of this optimism, as many in Washington do, that’s fine. But look at our reality. Which do you prefer to uphold?
Our presidential candidates’ respective campaigns are working hard to shape original messages (or at least plagiarized ones) far too consumed with answering questions about who they are more than why they want to do this. I acknowledge it’s an unenviable job. They’re up there with so many shouting “Don’t look down!” They’ll do whatever it takes to keep their footing. This is primitive and it’s shown to be unfavorable. My plea is for them to look past the complicated noise and focus on our greatest moments of unity. They’ll see how simple and full of empathy they are. Correlate these and strategize from that space. Many of us are on the edge just hoping not to fall while our apathetic resign to an imbalance. Our leaders stand tall and push us forward. Please inspire us.
I watched a proud Veteran die in a coffee shop last week. I also watched a man sit there and think nothing of it. I don’t want to be that guy; numb with apathy while significant things are happening around me. I don’t want to allow myself to be so distracted that I lose the ability to feel. I want to be inspired and I want to act on that inspiration. These feelings are a hell of a lot more favorable to me than coffee and a donut.