There are few things that have impacted me more than a speech I heard in a crowded room full of important people. It wasn’t the right setting, certainly not for fine dining and conversation you may expect to have in a secluded location with a good friend. But something inside the heart of this particular speaker moved that day, and that movement created a wave, which in turn moved me.
He didn’t look the same as many of the others, but served an even higher rank. He was a respected, accomplished and distinguished man whose resume would impress even the harshest of critics. I was fortunate to have developed a relationship with him well before his words that day, and because of that, they resonated with me even more. In a moment, I realized that even he was human.
He recounted a story of a trip he took to the deep south to visit some family. During his visit, he accompanied his young nephew to a cotton farm. They got to take home a piece of cotton, and this distinguished gentleman took it back with him to where he was from.
The cotton that lay on his desk drew the shriek of a crying woman. Perplexed, he asked her what was the matter. After all, it was just a piece of cotton. But to her it was not.
She recounted how that piece of cotton was reminiscent of the days of slavery, her family that had suffered in those cotton fields, and she was irretrievably inconsolable. How could you? She shouted. After all, you are one of us.
My friend did not understand how a piece of cotton could cause such anguish. He replayed the details that had transpired in his head, but they just did not add up. As much as he tried to understand the way that she felt, he couldn’t. And like the cotton which he put away, he tucked those thoughts neatly into the back of his mind.
Several years later he was outside of his home walking his dog when he saw a police car come zooming down the street. Unsure of what was happening, he stopped dead in his tracks. The officer jumped out of his car and detained him, gun drawn and pointed at his face. Moments later, the confirmation came that he was not the burglary suspect that they were seeking.
In my friend’s own words- the officers followed the rules, did everything by the book. But it did not negate the fact that I was still a black man with a gun to my face. In that moment, I understood that woman. You can never argue with the way that someone feels.
The story came to much astonishment when the speaker continued about how we must listen, really listen to each other and be there for each other, even when we may not understand. The story was about the inner workings of the human heart, and the complicated path it travels in understanding its own self.
We often sit in our lives doing the same. In an effort to block out any level of empathy, we immediately race to the afterthought. Feelings just can’t be proven in a court of law. They are there, they are raw and they are real.
In a world where it is in fashion to be the standout for crude commentary, I hope you choose to become the standout for love. Because although we may never understand why a piece of cotton moves one and not the other, we can always choose to dispose of the cotton out of respect and human decency.