I looked out my kitchen window. My daughter was in the front drive perched in an unsteady lean on her bicycle, one foot planted on the ground, the other on the peddle. She was talking with Alex, the young man who sometimes worked in our yard. He stooped down as he listened to her soft eight year old voice. My daughter doesn’t like big crowds, but in her own quiet way she loves people. I could see him smile and say something in reply. I had no idea what they spoke of but I could see his gentleness bend low to meet hers as they talked.
“Ah” I breathed wordlessly to myself. “She’s humanising him”. I didn’t really know what I meant by that thought at the time, but it has stuck with me ever since. I was observing something precious; A human moment.
The evergreen Jamaican trees moved in a slow dance with the breeze around them as they talked, the sun fell warm and golden at their feet. My daughter eventually climbed the tree nearby and Alex again raked leaves. The moment passed, but remains with me now forever.
Life is full of moments. but not always humanising ones. Alex’s life had had very few humanising moments. He had been born into a broken family and the war between his parents eventually left him living with his mother, estranged from his father. They were very poor and Alex was often hungry, starved of human warmth as well as food. We had known Alex for several years. He had moved into our community in the foothills of the Jamaican Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston to help care for his ageing grandfather. Actually he had moved in with his grandfather because he had no where else to go. His mother had a new boyfriend who didn’t like Alex, so Alex had to leave home.
The community we live it is quite a close knit one, there is a Don who keeps the peace. When we first moved in here one of the men proudly told my husband ‘There’s no thieving in this community. If anybody tries to steal from you they’re not going to be able to hold a nigh-night* or a funeral because they will never find their body’. My husband raised his eye brows but he was familiar with this way of things, its how things run here in Jamaica in many places, on both sides of the law; Defending against violence with violence.
When Alex had moved into the community, it was clear he was an outsider. He was very timid and socially awkward and quickly became as isolated as he felt. The community saw him as a stranger and treated him with suspicion. Their inhospitableness reinforced his timidity and social awkwardness. After his grandfather passed away Alex struggled to find work. We gave him food and garden work whenever we could, but it wasn’t enough. In desperation Alex turned to petty theft to fill his belly.
One moment, one human moment. That day my daughter spoke to him as a friend, as a person, as a big brother, as a human being. That day.
That day before that night.
That human moment with my eight year old daughter was most likely the last of such moments Alex ever experienced. That very same night gunmen kicked down the door of his corrugated iron shack and shot Alex, ripping him violently from this world leaving a gaping wound in the fabric of reality. No more moments. Only empty spaces where the moments used to be, where the moments should have been.
My garden is full of plants that Alex planted for me, trees that he watered and moments I will miss. On the day Alex died my daughter didn’t miss the human moment. Her eight year old heart gave him space, gave him a smile, gave him a human moment. And he had given it back to her, because you cannot humanise another without humanising yourself.
Alex’s death has given me the will to see the moments and to take not a single one for granted. After all, perhaps these human moments are all we have in the end. Moments in time. Moments of eternity.
My eight year old daughter taught me that day the importance of eyes that listen and hearts that make space. In the blur and busyness of life human moments usually need to be chosen, grasped and fought for against the tumultuous flow of life. They are born in stillness, not in rush, in presence, not in preoccupation, in real-time, not in prejudice. Seeing and choosing a human moment is a choice to see, eyes wide open. A choice against apathy, fear, and preoccupation. A choice to listen with eyes and see with hearts the thread of light within every human being. To trust it is there, even if physical eyes struggle to see it.
If I am honest with myself, so often I have lived a life more full of missed moments than lived ones; Rushing ,driving, labelling, withdrawing. In my ‘crucially important’ busyness, my overwhelming stress or my spiralling self absorption there are thousands of moments that have washed past my blind eyes, unseen, untouched, undone. Moments with my children, moments with my husband, moments with strangers, moments with struggling people like Alex. Moments of eternity lost in the vacuum of my self absorption. Rushing through my world I have no time to see (even if for a moment I catch my breathe long enough to want to). Urgency produces only an adrenaline blur. You pass in the whirl, like scenery unseen from the side window of a speeding car; Gone in the moment-less motion sickness of my self important rush.
And then there is another kind of blindness. The blindness of my fear, my past experience re-played.
Here in Jamaica our roads are racked with beggars, they meet us at the stoplights… begging, selling, washing windscreens, pushing, asking, imploring, grabbing, offending… and I recoil before the car stands still, before they open their mouth. Experience with a few has given me a label to wield on the many, to blot out their faces and withdraw; “They’re all so…, they just want…, They’re so pushy… they, they, they…”. They become a them, across the no-mans land from my us. I stand on the other side of my prejudice hurling rationalisations at the moment, at the human beings I am choosing not to see, not to wind down my window for, not to smile at and ask their name. People have no names when seen through the lenses of prejudice, only categories.
If I keep you at the other end of my arms length and see you only through the designer shades of my prejudices I will never see you, or the flickering thread of light within you struggling for air. Our human moment will pass un-lived, the breath of life unbreathed. These designer shades of prejudice I wear do not just colour, but blinker; blinding the present with the past. When I put a label on your head and speak at that label rather than looking into your eyes (the eyes of a human being) I don’t just miss the human moment, I destroy it; The moment in time, moment of eternity.
I could have all the right religious answers in the world, and yet in self righteous rant miss every human moment that washes passed my eyes, blinded by my right answers, my righteous arguments, my rationalised attitudes.
Every choice we make or fail to make either breathes life or destroys it. Failing to see you and meet you in that human moment doesn’t simply leave you as you are, but somehow makes you less than you are. When I don’t recognise and reach for the human moment I silently acquiesce to the system that destroys it. The system that destroys the breath of life, the thread of light within us all.
You are not a bumpersticker, you are a life breathed into by Life. You are a child of God, no matter what your circumstances have been, are or will be. You are worthy of this moment. Alex was worthy of that moment. He was worthy of many more of them.
So in Kingston Traffic as the light turns red and I slow my car, I wind down my window and I breathe out, and I choose against my fear to look you in the eyes. And sometimes you offend me, and sometimes you push too far, but mostly you look back at me with relief, and our human moment becomes an island for us both in the whirling chaos of the streets, the whirling chaos of a world with too few moments. And when (by the grace of God) this happens, eternity enters time and breathes life back into both of us. For we cannot humanise another without also humanising ourselves. Life produces life, hope produces hope and a human being reaching out to another produces a human moment . A moment of Eternity.
‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’ Ecclesiastes 3:11
(Quoting from the NIVUK Bible)
* Jamaica wake/celebration to recognise the passing of someone.