A few years ago, while I was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the wardroom of a ship 7,000 miles from my home in California, a man named Mohamed Atta flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I don’t know why the sandwich part matters. It’s just a part of the memory I can’t shake. Seventeen minutes later, after I had finished that peanut butter and jelly sandwich and walked up to the bridge of the ship to take over the watch, a man named Marwan al-Shehhi flew American Airlines Flight 175 into the South tower.
And then I heard it-over the marine band radio-Channel 16- the same station that drunk fisherman radio for help when they’ve run out of gas outside the harbor. I heard cheering. And laughing. And celebratory music. The news had gotten back to this side of the world. Over 3,000 Americans were dying, at that very moment-innocent men, women, and children. And they were cheering. And laughing.
The flame was lit. I hated every person from that part of the world and every person that shared their religion. As the days and months dragged on, away from home, and my family and the girl I met before I deployed that I would marry six months later, my anger grew. I didn’t know a single one of them. But I hated all of them.
Fast forward a few years, I found myself working again far away from home, the specifics aren’t material. It’s not a secret, it’s just not that interesting. The interesting thing happened one morning as the sun rose over the harbor I was working. I heard the low, throaty growl of the call to prayer for the mosque on the hill that overlooked the village nearby. It made me uneasy.
My local counterpart, a native of a village a few miles up the road, noticed. He looked at me and asked in his delicate accent “What does that sound like to you?”
“Trouble” I answered back. He was Muslim. I didn’t know it.
“To me it sounds like beauty. You are a Christian correct?” I nodded. He asked, “Do you know what the difference between Christians and Muslim is?” I didn’t answer but he continued. “We Muslims see our God in everything. You see it in the teachings of a prophet. I like the idea of God everywhere. That is why I’m a Muslim.”
It was the first of many conversations we would have. Over the seven months or so I was there, we worked side by side. We weren’t friends. And I disagreed heartily with his assessment of my faith relative to his own. But we had a relationship. We depended on each other. We were part of a shared interest with a shared desire. Over time, I would meet more people there, more Muslims and have more relationships.
In Iraq a few years later, I found myself working with Muslim men and women again. They were fighting to save what was left of their country, their culture, their families, and their future from the scourge of radical Islam. And again, relationships grew and my responsibility towards these people that I’d fought with grew. My hatred was gone-replaced by that thing that you feel towards people when you can see their faces and hear their stories and share their burdens. It’s a human connection. And though I once bathed in my hatred for a people, I came to the realization that it is hard to hate a person-for most of us.
Over and over again in my life-and I’ve had a weird one-I’ve found that I feel one way about a group of people until I meet one, not just in passing. But meet one and share part of my life with them. Depend on them. Have them depend on me. Live together.
Here’s another uncomfortable topic that cuts right to the heart of my point. In 2010, it was illegal to be gay in the military. The year I transitioned out and moved into the Silicon Valley tech world, that changed. I actually attended a leadership meeting at my unit a few weeks before processing out where we went over the “roll out plan” for acceptance. From the back of the room, “This isn’t a how to meeting is it?” sailed over us in a southern twang. Laughter erupted. “That why you showed up early?” From the other side. More laughter.
People were making homophobic jokes in the leadership meeting to discuss the policy change that would accept the gay community into the Navy. I don’t remember if I laughed. But I also don’t remember being offended. Because I had spent my entire adult life in an organization where it was illegal to be gay. And I didn’t know a single gay person.
Having worked in the tech world in California now for a while, things have changed quite a bit. I have gay coworkers and employees and friends. And if I heard that sophomoric crap now, it would sadden me. Not because I now have some manufactured sense of moral high ground because of the shift of public opinion. But because I know the pain that some of my friends and coworkers once endured in the shadows of society-forced away from any hope of family or faith. And I never thought about it once, until I knew people on that journey-really knew them.
The list goes on and on. I was confused and frankly a little freaked out by the idea of transgender people-I didn’t know any so an idea was all I had-until a few years ago one of my team members publicly came out and showed up to work as another gender. And then I spent time with her and learned about the horrific life she’d put behind her and how this moment was the most courageous of her life. And we welcomed her. And it was amazing.
I’ll pile on some more here. My go to word for someone doing something stupid was to call them a retard. Now I have a non-verbal nine year old autistic son and live the life of a special needs parent every day. I’ll never say it again because of the pain that comes with it. Not because I’m over sensitive and the world has gone mad with too much compassion. I just don’t like to say anything that hurts that much-that one does.
I used to have all kinds of preconceived notions about addicts and people who were unemployed or on welfare but I know better now. There is wisdom in knowing people. And wisdom in choosing not to share your judgement when you don’t. When you’re inside the blast zone that is the pain of human tragedy or disability or trauma or even just failure, the world looks different. Different in a way that just makes you feel like you want to help-not hurt.
So if you live in the same place you’ve always lived and spend time with the same people you’ve always spent time with, I think that’s great. I wish I were that grounded. I’m not patronizing. I genuinely feel that way. Roaming the world is exhausting and I’m glad I don’t do it much any more. But I’ve got a favor to ask. It’s pretty easy. If you have a strongly formed opinion about a group of people-a religion, a sexual preference, an ethnicity, a socioeconomic demographic-and you’ve never cared for one of them, or had them care for you-never shared a burden with them or worked toward an outcome together, take a moment of pause before you share your opinion about them. I know there’s plenty of words I would like to have back because I didn’t.
So if you just can’t let people you don’t know just be people you won’t know-maybe you can seek some of them out. Or read a book about them. Or “Like” Humans of New York on Facebook. Because I don’t know anything about Brandon Stanton-only that his words make you know people. And if you take anything from these 1,400 or so words of mine, it’s that knowing and connecting with people and sharing life with them is why we’re here. Judging from afar is not. My faith is clear about that.
So be careful. Because people don’t know that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And there’s pain in your words. Frankly they mean far less to you than they do to others. Because you speak of people. A faceless mass you don’t know. But when the rest of us hear it, we see a person and a life-more like our own than different-and it’s hard for us to hate. It’s the most amazing symptom of the human condition-to know someone and to care. Doing more of it is the only hope we have of a world that looks better today then it did yesterday.