Most people’s concept of brokenness is abstract in the same way most people’s expression of racism is abstract. That is, I have known people who have said that black people, or white people, or Chinese people, or whatever people are this way or that way. It is as if they are in an antagonistic relationship with this abstract other, a relationship that feels real enough to them that they will spend considerable real time and attention to avoid that group.
Meanwhile, they sometimes find themselves in a specific relationship with a black, white, Chinese or whatever person. If the relationship is very brief – change from a cashier, companion on a bus – it can remain in the abstract; but if it takes any kind of root, if there is any kind of conversation, inevitably that antagonistic abstract idea of the other is replaced by an actual human relationship, a relationship based on what that person said or did specifically. Now, we might even hear, “I don’t like black people, but John’s okay. He’s not like the rest of them.”
Our brokenness is as insidiously abstract as racism, because of course what we call racism is yet another expression of brokenness. Black people are broken because they are this way; or white people are broken because they are that way. They can’t help it. In fact, it becomes a form of weird compassion. I had a driving instructor when I was twenty who said of a group of boys who cut in front of us on their bikes, “It’s okay. It’s not their fault. They’re just black.”
As odious as that sounds, he was actually reaching for compassion, the exact same concept of compassion often applied to kids on the spectrum. One of Sawyer’s elementary school teachers, a woman who asked to have him in her class because she so adored him – adored the specifics of the relationship with him as one person can only adore another—this teacher insisted that his most difficult behavior was not his fault because it was beyond his control. In this way, to call him anything but broken, to believe it was his choice, would actually be to accuse him of something worse, of choosing to talk to himself, for instance, instead of doing math. Better to say he has to talk to himself and feel sorry for him.
It is tempting to despair when I see the disparity between the abstract and the specific. I know that just as the abstract idea of brokenness can lull a teacher into viewing a child as incapable of choosing different behaviors, so too abstract racism can become real immigration laws, or lynchings, or The Holocaust. How can one not despair given such atrocities? My despair is not a choice but a consequence. Yet to despair is to believe in the broken boogieman we have all invented, a monster that would annoy us or disrupt us or harm us because it is incapable of choosing otherwise. In my despair, I become the boogieman himself, the one who has lost the power to choose his own happiness.
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I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.