I knew I was walking into a scam as soon as it began to unfold. Walking along the Golden Horn in Istanbul, the waters shimmering not too far away underneath a backdrop of Ottoman-era mosques and row houses, I watched as a man with a shoe-shine kit passed briskly by, just as his shoe brush dropped out of his kit. I knew, as the brush clattered on the sidewalk, the man walking on unaware, that surely this was all staged. Yet, I couldn’t let him keep going without the tool central to his livelihood.
What happened next? I called out to him, pointing at his brush, and he effusively thanked me and demanded that he give me a free shoeshine. Smiling and yet adamant, he took it as an affront that I first hesitated to accept his offer. And I couldn’t smile and walk away from him quickly enough, given a recent knee surgery. As soon as he began applying the polish over my shoe, thinly spreading the thick cream out to the shoe’s extremities, he began to tell me of his children stuck far away, and how he couldn’t get back to them because he had come to Istanbul for surgery (he pulled back his shirt to reveal a bullet wound and a jagged scar), and was now stuck in this city, without the means of leaving.
I genuinely wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that this could be a chance encounter, that his story could be true. But I also knew it couldn’t be. When he was done and I took a few steps away from him, thanking him for his offer and wishing him well, he rushed at me, grabbed my arm, and demanded that I give him some lira or else he would take me to the police. He was trembling, hysterical. Others in the park turned and looked at us, wondering what was going on.
Of course, I’d seen quite a few things like this before, knew that it would be a stretch for him to actually follow through—given that it was broad daylight, in the middle of a city park, and that I had done nothing wrong. I kept walking away, he let go of my arm, swiped at the hat on my head and took it as payment, I guess. But then, realizing that I didn’t care for the hat, (or perhaps having pity for me and my balding head underneath the Mediterranean sun), he came back, gave me my hat, and pleaded for just a few lira as I walked away. His tone was so wrenching, I felt a twinge as if I had done something wrong, as if I was turning away a stranger.
I longed to recognize the goodness in him as another human being, and even still interrogate myself. Was there something I could have given him? Was there a grain of truth to his story? Probably not. I recognize the undercurrent of wrong this man perpetuates, when others, perhaps even more desperate, toil on silently, unwilling to manipulate. Yet, I also recognize the privilege I have to the point of guilt.
I was recently at a conference where Marilynne Robinson brought up an idea from John Calvin that has circulated around in my head the last few months: The idea that every person we encounter is a question posed to us by God. When we meet someone, anyone, we must ask ourselves: How can I love this person? We must ask ourselves this question in the face of the biases , the arrogance, the suspicion, the inability to trust that may run through our minds in a quick flash of thought. What we see as an inconvenience, may in fact be a divine opportunity.
And yet the truth remains that we all struggle with and against the world. I wonder if we are too hopeful in the way we think of humanity. Often, we discuss the goodness in people, hope for the best; we want to trust everyone. In grade school, we read Anne Frank and leave class feeling as if we can conquer the world together, arm-in-arm: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” It’s almost as if we are trying to will this belief into existence.
And yet there is this “sin” thing, this word we shirk from in our public discourse. We like to have done away with it. We write books that say original sin is an evil diagnosis, a no-win situation, and yet Marilynne Robinson, at the same conference, asked, “Don’t those people look around themselves for just one second?” It’s hard to look at the world and not see the inherent harm. From the child who rips a toy out of someone else’s hands as adults chuckle to themselves, to the much, much more systemic issues of oppression and dehumanization in society. Sadly, we don’t have to look very far—the abuse in a family, the gunning down of innocent lives in our schools and on our streets, the separation of children from their parents at our borders.
I wonder in dispelling a word like “sin”—in hoping for a perfect world, an “advanced” world without the need for antiquated moral signifiers—that perhaps we are merely sweeping evil under the rug where it is content. Sin wants to be in the structure, the scaffolding, not the surface. And yet we are reaching a point, painfully, where the sin we try to ignore has bubbled up over the surface, and we can’t help but meet it head on. Hasn’t the #metoo movement lead the charge straight into the face of sin? Haven’t the ways human rights have been violated by those in power turned into an opportunity for others to step forward and cry out that this is immoral, that we won’t be content with it?
Sugercoating and over-sentimentalizing the world doesn’t help. But neither does wallowing in the world’s sheer darkness. So where does that leave us? How do we write the wound? I think the answer begins in lament, lament of the imperfections we see in the world around us and in ourselves. Lament of our failure to expose, process, transform these imperfections. As writers, we can craft spaces in our poems, our prose, to give our readers the space to lament alongside us. And when we have wandered in this wilderness long enough, we can begin a new calling: to call out evil for what it is. The world is surely complex, the interactions between humans sometimes beautiful and sometimes messy. I worry that in our literary prose, our poetry, that we sometimes circle around so much rather than say what is, what should be said. And the same goes for teaching, for reading, for scholarship, for discussion. Time is precious on this earth, and directness can be a virtue, not a vice.
This may all seem like an exhausting thing, but it is vital. The world needs words on a page: space to mourn, space to hope. If we are to grow, if we are to wrestle with our inner demons, we must craft spaces to confess, to hold others and ourselves accountable, and to redirect, to reorient, painful as it is.
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