When considered, so many of our problems in the United States are the result of our collective distaste for crossing the street. I mean it mostly in a figurative sense, but even quite literally it’s true.
As children, we are taught to look both ways before crossing. There may be traffic coming that we need to wait for in order to not be splattered all over the pavement. We need to be aware of our surroundings as we are walking around for our own safety. But as we become more comfortable maneuvering around our space — the neighborhoods, cities, and states we call our home — we start to identify streets that are safe and comfortable, or are not safe and comfortable, to cross.
It’s human nature to seek out comfortable places to be. We naturally select the streets we want to cross based on our own interests and — just as important, but less conscious — our desire to belong to and be part of something. At a subconscious level, we know that wherever there are people who look and act like us, we’re more likely to be comfortable being there. Our minds map over time all the places where we “belong,” and places where we “don’t.” Eventually, we just stop going anywhere that doesn’t make us feel comfortable.
Sometimes other people tell us places we shouldn’t go, and they give us all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t go there “for our safety.” I grew up with the sense from adults around me that the west side of Sioux City, my hometown, was not a safe place, and that I shouldn’t go there. It’s got some issues, sure, but some wonderful people live there. My parents kvetch about our neighborhood and the world we live in becoming more “dangerous,” even to the point of buying guns to arm themselves. I live two blocks away from them. The worst thing that has ever happened to me here was someone once went through the stuff in my unlocked car overnight. They didn’t even steal my CDs, which offended me because either they thought my musical taste was dogshit or they didn’t know what CDs are.
We could argue all day about why people feel less safe in certain places. Whether it’s based on actual crime levels, what HuffPost or Rush Limbaugh is telling us we should feel, or how we subconsciously feel about the people we see on the other side of the street. When it comes down to it, our perception will always color our reality, regardless of whether we acknowledge the thoughts behind the things we say and do. Our unwillingness to be uncomfortable keeps us from crossing the street to see things from a different perspective, and that has never been more of an obvious problem than it is today. We’re ripping each other apart, unable to acknowledge each other’s humanity.
All of this became crystal clear to me on a walk through my neighborhood. I like to take walks frequently for exercise and have tried to find routes based on my familiarity with the neighborhood and the number of hills on the streets. Over time I found myself preferring one particular route, and I noticed I always choose to walk on the same side of the street. I was curious about this because I didn’t know why that particular configuration seemed to be the most attractive to me. So one day, I decided to cross the street.
I was amazed at how different things looked even switching from one side of the street to another. I discovered a cute but dilapidated pink house that I just never noticed before, even though I walked by it dozens of times. I saw a gorgeous rose garden and a very funny sign proclaiming “no dog pooping” on the lawn (does that mean anything else can poop there?). I was missing out on all of these things only because I was more comfortable walking on the other side.
If physically crossing the street helped me see my neighborhood differently, how much more can mentally crossing the street with others help us see them differently? After all, we all live on these streets. It’s not like we live in two hugely different worlds. Or do we?
I am, of course, writing this from my own perspective. My life experience has led me to be seemingly much more “liberal” than many members of my family, but even that classification is something I would argue with, because what does it really mean? My parents took me on mission trips to Mexico and inner-city Chicago when I was younger so I could experience life outside of my own. They voted for both Bushes,
but also for Obama at least once (nevermind, I was just informed that never happened). I was never explicitly taught that certain types of people were bad (unless they were trying to date me.)
I feel like I am able to cross the street with my family. I understand that just because they vote for Trump, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. A few good things have been accomplished during this administration, and the 987 terrible things that have happened don’t really affect them. I know, too, that these people would never burn crosses on anyone’s lawn, even if they post anti-BLM propaganda on Facebook that at times is pretty damn racist. They don’t understand the unrest over social justice because they are all typical middle-class white people, living their middle-class white lives, not bothering anyone — they didn’t own slaves, they don’t use the n-word, so they don’t get why everyone is “mad at them.” When they argue with people and post “news stories” that are either half-truths or outright lies about how COVID-19 is “just like the flu” or deaths from the virus are being “overreported,” I know they are, like everyone else, just ready to be done with this shit.
Do I accept these viewpoints? No. But I have found the humanity behind them. I understand that these people who are doing and saying so many hurtful things are, in some way, feeling attacked. Whether they are justified in feeling that way is not up to me. Perhaps they are trusting what others have told them about what’s on the other side of the street, without bothering to go over and look for themselves.
Another person’s reality isn’t invalid because you don’t believe or understand it — maybe you need to try to see it through their eyes. Instead of continually grumping about why this and such thing isn’t a problem, you should consider that you may think that because it just hasn’t happened to YOU (and bonus points for figuring out why it might not ever happen to you). Instead of calling everyone who doesn’t agree with you an idiot, or a racist, or a snowflake, shut up and listen. Consider that you might not have all the information. I know I don’t.
We are all accountable for misinformation and poisonous ideas we propagate and allow to take hold. There are real consequences that come with having half-baked opinions and listening to people who are purposely misleading or telling you half-truths — not only are they informing how you treat others in everyday life, they are influencing how you vote, and both of these things can have disastrous consequences. I try to get my news from several sources, including local newspapers, with an eye to the perspectives those organizations traditionally report from. I think “fact-checkers” have a pretty damn hard job these days. It feels like no one knows what is actually true anymore — we just get versions fed to us by people with an agenda. It’s a real problem that can at least begin to be solved by making it a habit to cross the street.
I am not going to fool myself into believing that writing about this does any good. You have to understand (and care) how your speech/silence and actions/inactions harm others before any sort of real conversation can happen. And most of the people who need to hear this message won’t think it’s for them. But it is. I don’t care if you’re a “Republican” or a “Democrat,” “liberal” or “conservative,” or not any of those things. It is difficult to try to have a functional relationship with people who constantly make snide remarks, bully others, and are OK with blatantly disregarding other human beings’ realities.
The more we insulate ourselves from others who aren’t like us, the more we refuse to see things from someone else’s perspective, the worse things will get. No presidential election is going to solve the problem we’ve all created by being a nation of people who cherish our freedom, yet are afraid to cross a street.
Want to learn how to cross the street, or think some of what you’ve found on the other side is alarming? Check out Emily Cornell’s recent article, “So Your Black Square Didn’t Work?”