Lazy Saturday afternoons are designed for one thing in my opinion: people watching. Having grown up in rural Michigan and attended college in even more rural Minnesota, living in an urban center where people outnumber cows is a quite treat. New York City’s Central Park has become one of my favorite haunts, full of benches to watch from and bursting with people. Right now Fall is in the air. Children donning puffy coats and animal shaped hats run straight through piles of fallen leaves with parents and dogs in tow. Runners provide a crisp rhythm to underscore the chaos as their feet pound atop the leaves. Herds of tourists shuffle by, cameras poised for action.
It’s a magical way to spend an afternoon. But sometimes it seems odd that I have to set aside time to watch people. After all in New York City, I share the sidewalks with hundreds of people everyday going to work and school, out for coffee or appointments. Shouldn’t I want a break from seeing people? But the problem is that in the midst of our overcommitted, hectic lives, we don’t look at each other. We walk side by side, sometimes colliding into each other but we rarely see each other.
I will be the first to say that this is not a natural way of interacting, but a learned one. Over my three years of city living, I have put away my "Midwestern nice" instinct to acknowledge everyone who crosses my path. I have become well versed in Surviving NYC Streets 101. Besides learning to have little regard for cars or street lights, I have learned that specific ways of navigating the sidewalk exist. There is the “I’m so immersed in my handheld gadget that I don’t notice the people dodging around me” model. Or the “I’m looking straight at you but see right though you” tactic. Or my favorite, the “I’m staring intently ahead like an automaton programmed to accomplish a top secret mission no matter who stands in my way” approach.
Some would ask if there is a problem with these tactics. After all, if you keep your head down you can get to where you’re going quicker and without all the distractions. We live in a face-paced, instant gratification, highly saturated world (for all I know you’re skimming this post right now!). We have to skim, people and information alike, to live or risk crashing from a system overload, right?
But is it worth it?
Last week I heard Leymah Gbowee speak at the launch of the Institute on Women, Religion and Globalization at Union Theological Seminary. Leymah is a peace activist who played an integral role in organizing the women of Liberia in order to end their country’s civil war as captured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In her lecture, Leymah brought to light the dangers of just skimming over those who surround us and making assumptions too quickly. Skimming, stereotyping, and staring through others, has costs for each of us individually and to society as a whole.
Leymah illustrated her point saying until “we do not look at a woman with a headscarf and see the mother of a terrorist,” until “we do not look at an African woman with a child strapped to her back and see a rape victim,” until we see the humanity in each other - violence, terrorism, poverty and a multitude of other ills will rule our world. I have to admit her words caught me off guard. They were truth telling and yet hard to swallow. They called for internal reflection on how each of our actions and assumptions affect the world.
It took me back to the sidewalks I walk down and the park benches I sit on. What conscious and unconscious assumptions do I make? Who do I stereotype? Who do I make invisible because I don’t want to see their pain, their privilege or their difference? How has my faith tradition colored what I see? How do my ways of seeing and not seeing shape society?
These questions of seeing are what I plan to explore as we embark on this State of Formation. I will approach formation as a process of learning to see and see anew the humanity and the divine spark in one another. The stories behind the statistics we read will serve as a guide for discovering how to see. I anticipate exploring stories that fill our newspapers and our barber shops, our places of worship and our coffee shops. I hope to learn new ways of seeing humanity by learning to hear the stories we render invisible, or those we skew and silence. I believe stories provide wisdom for a multitude of ways to see the humanity in one another across gender, class, race and religious lines. I trust that stories carry the seeds of transformation.
But before we can dive into the stories, we must begin fully seeing those around us.
I encourage you to go take a walk. Sit on a park bench. See who you see. I’ll do the same and report back.
Karri Whipple, 26, is a Master of Sacred Theology candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Karri’s interests centers around the role faith communities in addressing violence against women, restorative justice, and creating transformative, peaceful communities.