When I was a kid, the world didn’t seem dangerous. It was just out there. Whether backyard or neighborhood park, it was a place to explore. I didn’t realize my parents and other adults were watching out for me.
I went to kindergarten when I was five. The school was several blocks away, across a somewhat busy street that had adult crossing guards. But there were still side streets to cross on our own.
My very first day, Mom walked me to school, and a genial old man, the school principal, squatted near the entrance, so he could be at eye level with us kindergartners, welcoming us.
After all, there is only one first day of school.
Later, I began to walk to school with other kids, and while the busy street had a crossing guard, the side streets had none. Still, we were all right. Our parents had told us what to do.
Stop, look, and listen.
Every one of us was taught to do this. It wasn’t enough just to stop; you had to look around. It wasn’t enough just to use your eyes; you had to listen, too.
When I was twelve and in the sixth grade, I was selected to be a crossing guard. Back then, we were called “Safeties.” Safeties were stationed at each of the crossing points around the school block. We wore a special belt. Our job was to ensure that all the other kids crossed properly. We took it seriously.
At our school, a small headstone nestled under a tree. Inscribed on that headstone was the name of a special Safety. On a school day just like any other, a little kid hadn’t stopped, looked, or listened. A little kid had run into the street in front of an approaching car. The Safety put himself first. The little kid lived.
As Safeties, we all knew the story. Decades later, I can only imagine the rush of sorrow mixed with wrenching pride those parents of that brave Safety must have felt. Call of duty, even at twelve. Makes you think.
Today, beset by social and regular media, we set ourselves against each other. Every single hour of every single day. The noise is unrelenting.
Have we forgotten how to stop, look, and listen?
Are we the little kid charging headlong into the street?
Today, as our politics defies common sense and we’re pitted against each other, have we forgotten the most basic rule that kept us safe as children? That let us cross the street and get to the other side? Together?
Stop, look, and listen.
A quote attributed to Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, suggests “We have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” (1)
As an amateur composer, I’m struck by what John Cage once said: “The act of listening is in fact an act of composing.”
Listening requires silence first. Without that silence, we cannot effectively interpret the sounds that follow.
Similarly, looking is one thing. Seeing, quite another. But you need to look before you can see.
Looking and listening demand that you stop.
In our Internet age, when the latest interruption elbows the prior one aside, we may have forgotten how to stop. It’s nothing new; it just seems worse today.
Today, if there are parents and Safeties, they’re either marginalized, ignored or despised. After all, we’ve grown up. We know how to cross the street safely. No one needs to tell us anything anymore.
We call this freedom.
We argue that it is this kind of freedom that we must protect. It is this kind of freedom that lets us write anything, say anything, read anything, believe anything. It is this freedom we believe our ancestors either fought for (if they were present in America as it was forged (2)) or yearned for (if, as in my case, they came from Europe, escaping oppression and looking for opportunity).
This is a precious kind of freedom. It lets us be ourselves, go where we want, do what we want and think what we want.
Or does it?
After all, would anyone suggest that driving down the wrong side of the street and imperiling others should be defended on the grounds of freedom of expression? I may be free to injure or even kill my neighbor, but I’ll likely pay for it. Won’t I?
What are the limits of freedom?
While we’re busy yelling at each other about various lives that matter, are we listening to ourselves? While we’re busy declaring the present occupant of the White House to be either the Christ or the anti-Christ, are we listening to ourselves? Are we looking at our children, who watch us in their wise way? Do we know what example we set, to them and to each other?
Before the pandemic created opposite viewpoints about masks, vaccines, social behavior, and so on, did we understand that we already had deaths of despair haunting every corner of our world? That opioid overdoses and gun suicides were more than just a passing thing? That these and other deaths of despair had nothing at all to do with gun control, black people, women, immigrants, transgendered folks — even as people in those groups fell to the darkness that accompanies hopelessness? And do we now understand that these deaths of despair include people with COVID who don’t care, who didn’t care, that after all COVID is just another thing, another in a long line of challenges designed to wear you down, knock you down and possibly kill you?
When we scream about black lives mattering at people who scream back that all lives matter, are we leaving off the word that may well defuse the argument — that lives matter equally, no matter the color, the gender, the land of origin, the political persuasion? That if lives matter equally, then opportunity matters equally, and that rigging anything, whether elections or tax laws, or laws to restrict and control one group at the expense of another, is wrong? Simply wrong? That creating unnatural opportunity for one group of ourselves while creating unnatural barriers for another group of ourselves is giving that freedom we so cherish the big lie? That to preserve artificial advantage is to thumb one’s nose at what we assert as core values, whatever our individual credo or collective creed?
If we stop — stop the yelling; and look — look at each other; and listen — listen for the voices behind the noise; what will we see and hear?
What is shaping this nation, this world, this collection of people, nestled amid the rocks, plants and animals, which is all that we have?
Will we understand that we don’t own the world, but that the world owns us? That despite vaccines and technology and information everywhere, there is a slow steady pulse that is the planet, its climate and all its denizens? That that pulse beats not just for us, certainly not because of us, but beats with a rhythm of unstoppable life, life that will adapt and evolve in the face of climate and other change? That while this pulse may be weakened by human habitation, encroachment, extraction, pollution, and noise — what we collectively seem best at — it will nonetheless change, shapeshift, even in the midst of a mass extinction, bodying forth in this latest case a virus to turn us from hunter into hunted?
There are billions of us — each insignificantly equipped to survive, were it not for our brains. And these we’ve used for harm as much as for help.
Our science will save us in the short run from the worst pandemic consequences. But science cannot change our despair into hope. Only we, alone and in groups, can do so. Religion, while noble in its intent, requires our sacrifice as well. While science and religion may help, we must do the work. It is up to us.
When alone, we must stop, look, and listen. We must, individually, think through what is being offered to us — everything from advertisements to campaign slogans to current events to social media sites to all those places on the miraculous Internet where people have hung their opinions, as I have here, to dry.
In groups, it’s no different. We must take the uncomfortable path of seeing the opposing point of view, of understanding that an argument is not won when one side prevails but when, through dialog, a better understanding is forged, and from it, a way forward that works for all. We create alloys to strengthen pure metals. It’s no different when we encourage diversity in argument and from this diverse thinking, find better answers. We must first be silent, in order to hear. We must first look, in order to see. Above all, we must stop.
Stop, look, and listen.
Freedom is not freedom to do as we please. Freedom means, live well together. Understand responsibilities. Become our own Safeties. Act as examples to one another. Be accountable. Be honest.
This is hard, hard work. Meticulous thinking requires constant stopping, observing, listening. Honesty is even harder. Am I sure this is good information? How do I know? Have I drawn the right conclusions? How do I know? Have I written the right words? How do I know?
I fear that none of us, myself certainly included, is up to the task. Perhaps that’s merely the apprehension one feels when trying something new, or something especially challenging.
After all, the best in any profession — writing, farming, tennis, architecture, painting, gardening, parenting, medicine, woodworking, dance, engineering, leadership, governing — the best will tell you that practice is eternal and perfection a fool’s errand. We must remember the words “pursuit of happiness” as well as “pursuit of perfection.” We find satisfaction in the chase, as we hunt for our better selves.
So, as 2020 comes to its sad and exhausted close, and as 2021 looms with little initial promise for better, the best advice we can give ourselves is what our parents and crossing guards have always taught us: Stop, look, and listen. In so doing, we’ll discover that hope which burns eternally in each of us.
When we join our hopes for better — better times, better opportunities, better education, better health, and so on — we rediscover the collective aspiration that holds us together even as we stretch to separate. Collective aspiration is the best of what makes us human. Like a candle viewed across a dark divide, that aspiration, that understanding that we share the earth and each other and therefore must do our best to live well in it, can help us find our way to a calmer, quieter and more promising future. It’s to that vision that we must set ourselves, however unattainable it may seem.
So here’s to 2021 and all it will bring. It will bring plenty. But 2020 taught us resilience we didn’t know we had, and it helped prepare us well for the days to come. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.
Stop, look, and listen.
A new year beckons.
1. Epictetus may never have said this — see this insightful observation by “Sententiae Antiquae”: https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2020/01/30/we-have-two-ears-one-mouth-and-many-more-ascriptions/. Even so, it is a sentiment shared across cultures and down centuries.
2. Forged or wrested from the indigenous - a point not to be forgotten but also not to be treated in passing. It requires its own essay.