I am a baby of the first order. I can’t watch violent movies. I am repelled by songs that are woman-hating and threatening. In fact, we had to walk out of Slumdog Millionaire because I couldn’t handle the first few scenes. Once I get those images—or lyrics—into my head, I can’t get them out. It’s as if they become part of my makeup, and Robocop and RiFF RAFF are not what I want to be made up of.
Our pediatrician once suggested that I read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child for some help in raising my daughters. After I read it, I thought “My daughter probably isn’t a highly sensitive child, but I’m pretty sure I am.” As a result, I have developed a habit of protecting myself. If content gets too intense, I turn away. I shut it off. I excise it from my consciousness.
This is a week where I have sorely wanted to do that – to just turn it off. Along with the rest of America, we spent Monday evening anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury, knowing that no matter what happened, it would partially define us as a country. We listened to the tortured nine-minute statement by County Attorney Robert McCullough as he indicted everyone—the media, the public, Michael Brown—except the officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.
I took a big deep breath, and then I turned it off. I spent the rest of the night heart-sick and worried, but relatively cut off from the rest of the world. Tuesday, though, we were barraged with images and evidence and testimonials. We were inundated with outrage on one hand and celebration on the other. It seemed as if the whole nation took to Twitter and Facebook, and the collective impact was overwhelming. It was—bar none—the worst Facebook day I have ever had, and boy did I want to shut it off.
But I decided I could not. That it would be irresponsible and inhumane to turn away from what my neighbors were telling me. Young black men were pouring out their fear of walking down the street in their own neighborhoods. African American moms were sharing their anguish at having to warn their sons about the life-threatening possibilities of an encounter with the police. And you know what? Friends and family members were also spewing racial vitriol, calling Michael Brown a thug, and celebrating the failure to indict. I needed to see that with clear eyes, too.
And it doesn’t stop at Ferguson either. I can’t turn my face from the gang-rape of an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Virginia. Or the suffering of Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandyhook shooter, who decided he was ready to tell his story to the New Yorker. I can’t ignore actress Diane Guerrero whose parents were whisked away by immigration officers while she was at school, leaving her to fend for herself at 14 years old.
In all this, I am reminded of Garrett Hongo’s masterful and heartbreaking poem about a shooting he saw callously reported on television. Here it is in full:
In memory of Jay Kashiwamura
In Chicago, it is snowing softly
and a man has just done his wash for the week.
He steps into the twilight of early evening,
carrying a wrinkled shopping bag
full of neatly folded clothes,
and, for a moment, enjoys
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,
flannellike against his gloveless hands.
There’s a Rembrandt glow on his face,
a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek
as a last flash of sunset
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.
He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor
in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,
dingy and too large.
He negotiates the slick of ice
on the sidewalk by his car,
opens the Fairlane’s back door,
leans to place the laundry in,
and turns, for an instant,
toward the flurry of footsteps
and cries of pedestrians
as a boy–that’s all he was–
backs from the corner package store
shooting a pistol, firing it,
once, at the dumbfounded man
who falls forward,
grabbing at his chest.
A few sounds escape from his mouth,
a babbling no one understands
as people surround him
bewildered at his speech.
The noises he makes are nothing to them.
The boy has gone, lost
in the light array of foot traffic
dappling the snow with fresh prints.
Tonight, I read about Descartes’
grand courage to doubt everything
except his own miraculous existence
and I feel so distinct
from the wounded man lying on the concrete
I am ashamed
Let the night sky cover him as he dies.
Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven
and take up his cold hands.
No. I can’t hide behind the preciousness of sensitivity, though I want to mightily. As Hongo says—I feel so distinct, and I am ashamed. These stories of anguish and suffering are the stories of my neighbors, yes. And I am obligated to really hear what it is they have to tell. But they are also stories of my country and my culture, they are the stories that I help create—over and over—by turning a blind eye and refusing to examine the rot in the systems we perpetuate and submit ourselves and our children to. Even as I write this, I feel sick to my stomach. I know these are stories I have taken into my body and that they have become part of my DNA. But the thing is, they were already there. I am already implicated in the shooting of unarmed children and gang rape and the isolation of mental illness. And it is my responsibility to keep my eyes clear and my heart open. That’s the least I can do.