Dear car emissions lady, I am sorry

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I wanted to hug the woman doing my vehicle emissions test today.

I recognized this as a potentially awkward action, so I refrained. Hugging a total stranger unexpectedly has too many options for interpretation.

Yesterday came the news of another black man killed for what appears to be little reason. Grieving over that, I watched the attendant, a thirty-ish black woman, doing her job, blank-faced. And suddenly all I wanted to do was hug her and tell her I was so, so sorry.

She would probably have thought that was odd at best, a misguided attempt at avoiding white guilt at worst. I could be wrong though. Perhaps she would have embraced me in return, and two people might have had one moment of surpassing barriers that should not exist. I don’t know. Maybe it would  be the only apology she ever heard, and that would be something, at least.

I’m sad, and frustrated, and angry, and most of all, so, so sorry.

  • I’m sorry for the fact that she has to worry about her children all the time. Will they be given a fair chance at life? At staying alive? Will they have to watch their backs and take precautions my children never had to?
  • I’m sorry she has to be afraid as a default because her skin has more pigment than mine. As a woman, I know what it is to be afraid as an undercurrent in our lives. The stronger and more powerful can hurt us, and we never know who carries that intent. I know it for me; I know it for my three daughters. I know she has a double layer I don’t experience.
  • I’m sorry for the looks of suspicion when she enters a nice store. The side eyes from other mothers at the playground when her children join the crowd. I’m sorry that I don’t even know what other kinds of embarrassment she suffers because I cannot imagine it. It’s never come near me.
  • I’m sorry her husband or brother or father or son is not as safe as mine.

And I can say that without taking away from others’ pain at protests gone violent or other senseless killings. They are also evil and wrong. Unlike people, evil does not discriminate.

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I can apologize and be terribly, mournfully sorry even if I’ve never done a racist thing in my life.

How is that?

If I saw a stranger hit by a car in need of help and I walked past, would I be at fault? I didn’t drive the car. I don’t know the person. I would never hit-and-run myself. But if I walk past and do nothing—am I not contributing to that person’s harm? If I lean over his bleeding body and say, “Hope you do OK. I think hitting people with cars is dreadful,” and then hasten on to my Starbucks date, have I done all I should?

Unlikely.

It’s time to stop refusing to apologize for the ills around us just because we didn’t drive the car. I know a lot of people are offended by that idea. I probably was, too, not so long ago. But I’ve learned that apology is freeing, not debilitating. Like mercy, it is twice blessed–it blesses she who gives and she who receives. (My high school teacher who made me memorize that Shakespeare speech would be proud.)

I don’t detract from myself if I am sorry for another’s experience and I admit I have never helped. I don’t lessen myself or anyone else. I open myself up to becoming more than I have been.

It doesn’t hurt me to say I’m sorry. But it hurts her immeasurably that no one does.

Not seeing and not hearing our brothers and sisters is refusing to be the image of God, as well as refusing to see the image of God in them. God sees. El Roi. God hears. El Shama. It’s so part of his character that it’s part of his name. He especially hears the oppressed—exactly what He is doing when He takes these names (Genesis 16).

Being sorry is not weak. Being sorry is brave. It’s the strongest stance a person can take, directly against all out tendencies to hide in the garden away from God’s all-seeingness. It’s a step into the light. Being sorry is being willing to go first. It’s looking vulnerability in the eye and accepting its mantle as a prize, not a punishment.

When we were children, we used to think that when we grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But you grow up to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable. Madeleine L’Engle

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I’m tired of the lie that “sorry” is weak. Sorry is strong enough to open doors heavy with the weight of the ages. It’s a start. 

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