We've all been there—we are mistreated by someone who we have never hurt, perhaps never spoken to, perhaps never even met. We get angry. We let our hearts fill with this anger and revenge, and rightfully so. What have we done to deserve mistreatment and abuse? What can explain blind hatred?
Matthew Boger in his Distinguished Lecture series talk detailed his experience of facing violence due to his identity. When he was only 13, Boger, then homeless, was nearly beaten to death by a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads for being small and gay. In the months and years following the attack, he spoke of the confusion and rage he experienced, from speculating God's abandonment to fits of rage and destruction in the first home he was offered as a homeless teenager. He was beaten for being gay by a group of men who sought nothing but to inflict their hatred and prejudices onto someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Years later, Matthew was reunited by chance with one of his attackers while they were both working at the Museum of Tolerance. Over time, this man, Tim, a converted "skinhead," and Matthew were able to not only form a friendship, but create a workshop together which addressed the kind of intolerance each side had at one point been afflicted by.
Matthew talked about how difficult it was for him to come to forgive Tim. And before I even entered the evening's lecture, I thought to myself, "how and why would he ever want to forgive Tim for his actions? Why would he want to listen to anything Tim has to say?"
I confess it is still difficult for me to wrap my head around Boger's forgiveness. As a society, we are so rooted in our perceived dualities and extremities to the point where dialogue is nearly moot. Each "enemy" is unapproachable and each "ally" is at constant risk of becoming an enemy should they push our beliefs too far in another direction. Forgiveness is not a virtue nor do we want it to be. That is why Matthew's story is so profound and popular for us, because we are amazed when we learn of such radical acts of forgiveness.
When asked how he was able to come to forgive Tim, Matthew said, "You don't know the tools people have been given in their lives." You can't always know what someone's background is, what has conditioned them to believe a certain way and how many opportunities they have had to change their path. For Tim, a switch flipped when his young son shouted a racial profanity at a black man in a grocery store, and he realized that he was ashamed of such behavior and did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. His identity as a father overpowered his neo-Nazi, "skinhead" identity after many years in the movement. But does everyone have that switch? If so, what can flip it and how do so many remain unaffected and stagnant in their hatred?
Boger concluded his talk with this: "The most important quality in any person is the willingness to listen and to hear someone's story." Storytelling is the foundation of understanding and reconciliation. Through this power, we can come to see, or at least just hear, the lived experiences of those not like us, and perhaps so different than us we think them the enemy.
There is no avenue to excuse blind hatred and violence. I am not advocating that we wake up tomorrow and go hug our middle school bully. Matthew Boger is not advocating that he needs to go out of his way to forgive and understand the 14 men who nearly beat him to death all those years ago. However, when the opportunity arises to experience the vulnerability of someone who is different than us, I feel as though we have an obligation to take it. You can never know what it is that can "flip the switch" for a person to abandon certain worldviews and start a path toward a new life, in whatever degree of severity in which they present themselves. Hate is a cycle perpetuated by violence and prejudice, but also by arrogance and complacency. Beating someone nearly to death is not the only way hatred is perpetuated. It is also through silencing and dismissal.
If spending a year pondering Paideia's, "what makes us human?" question taught me anything, it is that the closest we can come to answering this question is through storytelling. We all have a story to tell. Some people may not like it, others may not listen, more yet might abandon us for it. But still, we have these narratives, and there are people out there willing to listen to if we share them. In a society so self-centered, the very act of listening can be a significant step in the direction of becoming other-centered, with being concerned with something larger than our own success, comfort and material happiness. If we want to be comfortable and happy for the rest of our lives, we can close our ears and hearts to the perils of others. Ignorance is bliss. But change and meaning come from intentional and active efforts to make real, lasting change. I argue this leaves the heart fuller than any construct of what society tells us "happiness" should look like in a person. For Matthew, this change meant listening to Tim's story, learning from his own and entering into a relationship he once thought impossible. Matthew and Tim are creating their lasting change one talk, one workshop, one life at a time. What does your change look like? What stories will you tell? And above all, what stories will you allow yourself to be moved by?