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Without Kindness, We Lose Our Common Dignity

As I’m riding the overnight train from Chicago to New Mexico, an elderly African-American man in a wheelchair is taken off the train by paramedics, police, and the conductor. Earlier, I had heard the car attendant say something about a minor heart attack. The man, a double amputee, shivers in the cold night air as he argues with the authorities in words I cannot hear through the sealed train window. Fifteen minutes later, they put him back on the train, and we continue on our way.

By morning, the man’s physical distress is noticeable; an odor fills the train. The man has soiled himself. As I’m gathering my luggage in the lower car to step off at my stop, a conductor starts complaining loudly, about the smell.

“I thought they were going to throw him off in Kansas City,” he grumbles. “There are rules about offensive odors. Why should 50 people have to suffer all the way to Los Angeles because of this guy?”

I am shocked by the comment. The man is poor, probably homeless. It is possible he was put on the train in Chicago and sent to Los Angeles to survive the coming winter.

“I swear, I’m putting him off when we get to Albuquerque,” the conductor whines.

It snows in Albuquerque, my mind objects. The police shoot homeless people for fun in Albuquerque. My words are turning to dust in my mouth. I glance at the car attendant, hoping he’ll say something to the conductor. The car attendant shifts uncomfortably as we stand in the crowded vestibule. The elderly man can hear every word we say – and don’t say – through the thin door of the handicapped bathroom. The car attendant, a calm, Hispanic man tries to explain to his supervisor, who got on the train this morning, the complexity of the elderly man’s situation. The supervisor ignores him and over-dramatically opens the door of the moving train to let in fresh air.

The train slows as we near the station, hardly a minute or two have passed. I am frantically trying to spit out the words that are in a jumble on my tongue. In Chicago, more than 6,000 homeless people are preparing to survive six months of sub-zero temperatures. This man has no feet. He has possibly just survived a heart attack. He needs medical care in a nation that will not provide it. He needs our compassion, not our scorn.

The train stops. The conductor impatiently throws out the yellow step stool and tells me to get off – this is a 10-second stop. I am left on the platform in this remote corner of northern New Mexico, tears in my eyes, furious at my inarticulateness.

Standing there, Gandhi came to mind. Not the triumphant Mahatma Gandhi on top of his game, waging powerful nonviolent struggle for Indian independence from British Rule, but rather the young Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was thrown off a train in 1893, South Africa for refusing to give up his first-class seat because of the color of his skin. He spent the cold night sitting on the hard bricks of the station, confronting injustice and his sense of powerlessness. It was a potent, long night. In the morning, he rose with determination and resolve to end the injustice of discrimination he and his fellow Indians faced. We know the story from there.

Like young Gandhi, I spent an uncomfortable period at the train station reflecting on my personal failure. I failed my fellow human beings on the train. I failed myself, and my principles. I failed the man in the wheelchair. I failed the haunting memory of my diabetic father who faced amputations shortly before his death. I failed the car attendant who may have felt stuck between the opinions of his superior and the seeming agreement in my silence. I also failed the conductor, leaving him to continue his unthinking cruelty. I failed to challenge his discrimination. I left him with the impression that I – and other passengers – agreed with his assessment that his professionalism required him to throw a hurt, elderly man off at Albuquerque. I failed to explain that our slight discomfort at the smell is negligible compared to the suffering the man was enduring … and that we, as fellow human beings, could offer the slight balm to the man’s pain by showing him compassion and treating him with dignity.

As the train shrank on the horizon of the tracks, carrying the man, the conductor, and the car attendant into an unknown chapter of the unfolding story, I was left with the burning shame of having lowered my human dignity through silence and inaction. We all like to imagine ourselves as the heroes in the story, but I failed to step into the role and instead wound up on the sidelines, a minor character in the long plot of the world.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I died a little that day. This essay is an attempt to return to life, to step back into the living crucible of human existence. I share this story to begin to restore my diminished human dignity. I reflect here to prepare us both to act differently in the next moment, to succeed in speaking for justice and compassion. I hope we all find the words I lacked that day and the courage to speak them promptly. My silence may mean that man’s death. It also may not matter; someone else – the car attendant, another staff person, a passenger – may have intervened to assure the elderly man safe passage to Los Angeles. He may have wheeled out of the bathroom and given the conductor a piece of his mind. I do not know. I only know that my behavior left room for improvement.

I have heard that the Tibetans have no word for guilt. The closest approximation is a word that means, “intelligent regret decides to do differently.” Noticing wrong action is tied inextricably to changing the behavior. For myself, the lesson on the train is well taken. It came home powerfully to me over the next few days. I went over the situation again and again, practicing in my mind how to change my behavior. With more than half a million homeless people, and 46.7 million in our nation living below the poverty line, there is no doubt that I will face another situation like this again. It is only a question of when and whether I will choose to make a choice that upholds the human dignity of us all.

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Rivera Sun is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection and other books, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network.

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