Thursday, July 14, 2005

Lessons of Hate

Here’s a thought for everyman who tries to understand what is in his hand…

Or head. Or Heart.

24, a popular program broadcast on the tube this year, portrayed a man shooting down the plane containing the president of the United States. That was on a network television station that is seen by millions. The fictional perpetrators were Islamic fundamentalists and their supporters.

At that same moment a public TV station was broadcasting the uncomfortable historical facts of 1930s Catholic support for killing the Jews. Far fewer people learned that lesson, however, because hardly anyone watches public TV these days. Those few who did watch Frontline on April 4, 2005 could not have easily ignored the message about the power of messages of hate.

The millions that saw the fictional shoot down of Air Force One learned a lesson of hate that evening as well.

A gunshot just rang out near my home. Not a firecracker or backfire or recording, but a gunshot. In a very urban setting. This is America. Land of the free, home of who knows what…

Learning about hate is not fun. Watching blacks kill blacks in Haiti was a tough lesson. Right before my eyes. Not once or twice but day after day, sometimes week after week. It depended on the season. It was called dechoucage or "pulling up the roots." It means out with the old leadership and in with the new.

Necklaced. When I first saw a man with burning tires around his neck I wondered if there even is a thing called society. A concept of civilization. Perhaps not, at least not yet. Maybe someday, maybe…

When I read about some Jewish extremists spreading blue poison pellets around the Holy Lands I wondered if advances in human culture are possible. Wild gazelles died along with some Palestinian goats. Those same thugs poisoned a poor village’s only well. Deliberately dumped used baby diapers in the drinking water. In the desert.

If it is possible to breed hatred then it is possible to breed love. Instill love in the people you brush past in your life. The cause needs every supporter it can find.

A weary Pope could no longer keep up the struggle. The little Polish man tried to change what he could without causing more death. He knew far more than he shared with us. He lived in Warsaw while the carousel went round and the Jewish ghetto burned alive. Necklaced en masse.

Have you ever been robbed? Alone in an alley? Maybe at gunpoint or at the tip of a knife? I have. Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Vancouver, India, Virginia, Amsterdam and other places. Too many times. All wonderful, beautiful, flower-strewn places. It is all about looking the face of hate and desperation right in the eyes. I looked hate right in the eyes on each occasion and spoke words of compassion and love. Scares the hell out of hate to get sympathy at that moment. Not at all what they are expecting. No, not at all.

You may still get robbed but not killed. Show fear or anger or anything but love and compassion to your thief and that may be the last thing you ever do. Show love and compassion and sometimes funny things happen.

I ended up taking one thief to a restaurant and buying him all he could eat. The restaurant owner knew the man as a thief and tried to make me hate him by openly showing her hate to the thief and myself. I still made her feed us both and give extra to the criminal. She was stunned into silence at my momentary show of compassion for a very hungry man. No matter, we all learned a lesson that morning.

When the Haitian man pushed the gun in my face I laughed at him. He was quite serious about killing me. I knew that too. I knew that man for many months. When I stopped laughing at his foolishness I said to him, “You can kill my body, but not me. Go ahead, shoot me, then what happens?, another person comes along, you shoot that person and the next, pretty soon you are out of bullets.” He started to shake, rather uncontrollably. He still pointed the gun in my face and demanded my money. I refused. (I do not recommend this approach, bear with me.)

Plain thieves do not know what to do next when the gun or knife does not produce the expected result. Drug addicts, hungry people and killers may go ahead and shoot you anyway. In this case I knew this man. He was not particularly hungry or an addict or a man who had killed recently. He was failing to elicit fear in me. I slowly sat down but never stopped looking in his eyes. I have been told you do the same thing with snakes but not bears or mountain lions. Who knows.

The man kept on threatening me and shaking. I asked him if he knew who I was. I said, very firmly but not shouting, “Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am? Do you realize what happens when you kill me? I am not who you think I am. You cannot kill me, my body maybe, but not me. I will still be right here in this room in your face, even if you kill me.”

He was violently shaking at this point. I was really concerned that the weapon would discharge just from his shaking but I showed no fear. No fear on display to indicate weakness. None at all. Under my shirt I was sweating buckets but not my face.

He asked me who I thought I was “God or something?” I replied, “What do you think? What do you feel right I am right now? You answer that question, I know who I am.”

He slowly set the gun down but kept it pointed at me. I kept looking deeper and deeper into his eyes. (I also moved ever so slightly to one side so that the bullet would pass just to my left.) I realized that I was already deep in his head. He said to me, “You cannot act like God, that is a sin. The Bible says that is very bad.”

“I am not acting, Pierre. I can only be exactly what I am with you there pointing a gun at me, threatening to kill me. You forced me to show you who I really am. Now you know. Put the gun away, you cannot kill me and you know it.” He did put the gun away and he did know it. From that day on he showed immense respect to me in every way he could.

Later, I replaced the bullets in that gun with blanks, just in case Pierre flipped out again.

A few days later I walked right through the Haitian revolution without getting shot. People were shooting each other from both sides of the street. I was the only white man in that village town on that day. Walking right down the middle of the street with a briefcase. When I realized the bullets were going past it was too late to run, to show fear. So here’s what I did:

Three big ladies were still walking down that street. They had baskets of fruit on their head. They were singing. This is Haiti, the very poor still have to take their ripe fruit to market, even during a revolution. So I put my briefcase on my head, marched behind the ladies, swung my ass back and forth wildly and sang out loud. The shooting stopped. The shooters were laughing so hard at the sight of this white missionary man swinging his ass and singing that they could not fire. The ladies looked back at me and laughed too. I just kept marching along, swinging my ass with that briefcase on my head. Scared as all hell, but not showing it, in the least.

The gun fight resumed only minutes after the fruit ladies and I danced on past. I got to the clinic, where Pierre was, only a few minutes later. He knew about the gunfight, everyone knew, you can hear the shots for miles. Pierre was absolutely sure I was Jesus or Buddha after walking through all that killing that day. I knew I was just me, only using the brains I was born with and what I learned along the way. Best to let people like Pierre make up their own minds.

I learned that Pierre had killed someone before and gone to jail for it. So I suggested he go live up into the mountains, to live and work with the poorest people in the world for a few months. Without the gun. There are better lessons to learn there than jail ever taught him. He really changed his act after watching me and living among the destitute and desperate.

Many other rich and poor Haitians would often ask why I stayed on for months when all the other foreign aid workers quickly got on planes and left the country. I said this to each person that asked me, “When all the aid workers leave that is when you need us the most. So I am still here and you should carry on just as if all the aid workers are still here. No looting the missions, do not stop preparing the big pots of food. The missionaries will come back one day (I hoped.)” I ended up adopting many other missions for the duration of the revolution. I would just stop by, tell them I was now in-charge and make them carry on as usual. The Baptist mission, the 7th Day Adventist mission, a CARE location and many others. It was strange. All I had to do was carry on like everything was normal. And walk down streets where some people shot at each other while others starved to death. Show no fear and others will not be so afraid. And maybe, just maybe, the gunmen will be laughing too hard at the sight of you to shoot straight. It is that simple.

Since my work in India and Haiti I am not so afraid to die anymore. At least not foolishly, by the hands of a deranged man or revolutionaries. I drive just about at the speed limit everywhere I travel. And remember to sing out loud and swing my ass back and forth if someone points a gun at me.

Death is one thing that will happen to every living thing, one day. The idea is not to hasten death’s arrival by acting foolishly. Like smoking or driving too fast or failing to show compassion and love always. Always.

Not trying to scare you, just teach you something. Survival is more about laughter and loving the people around you.

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