I met a colleague for coffee yesterday. Mike’s a handsome affable 60-something with salt and pepper hair and a big bright smile. A smart and friendly salesman, I just assumed he had his teeth capped or professionally buffed – they were brilliantly white – in order to increase sales. You know, that good ole boy smile from the lanky Southerner.
Turns out Mike grew up in destitute poverty, in a “mill town” in North Carolina and he never brushed his teeth. Nobody did. As a kid he never owned a toothbrush and the cultural ritual was simple: at 19 you went and had your teeth pulled out, and got dentures. So there you go.
In a nanosecond when I first met Mike I made a judgement. Like a Geico commercial for the human race, it’s what we do. I saw bright white teeth and I assumed vanity and increased sales. I was profoundly wrong. Mike told me that kids were expected to drop out of school and work at the mill at 16 and when one of his cousins resisted because he wanted to go to college, some other kids bashed his head in. There you go, college boy, they said after they cracked his skull, how’s your brain now? His cousin somehow went on to Harvard.
Everybody has a story and we don’t even bother listening to it before we’re filling in the blanks, reading between the lines, sizing things up and packaging it so we’re safe. I see fake white teeth and I assume vanity, not abject poverty, because the former fits my mental box space while the latter breaks my heart and it just hurts to think of a kid growing up without a toothbrush in a town where you get your skull crushed if you want to go to college.
Mike never saw an egg till he was six years old. It was fatback and grits every morning for breakfast. As I heard his story unfold over hot coffee, safe in this grown up world of laptops and lattes, I thought about my own kids and how lucky I was to be able to raise them in this country where they had good medical care and even a pediatric dentist. But it’s the same country where Mike grew up, and how many hundreds of thousands of kids have lined up at 19 to have their teeth pulled out? I owe my soul to the company store – Johnny Cash sings about the prison of an industry that owns generations of people. Your Daddy works at the mill (or the factory, or the mine) and as soon as you’re old enough, you head down that same path. Used to be there were no greenback dollars in these town, only “company dollars” you could use at the store to buy groceries – owned by the company – and pay your rent, to the company. A prison, with no way out and then the company fails and the suits leave and you and your family are left with nothing. No exit strategy, no education, no hope in a town that’s been raped of trees or mountains or beauty of any kind. And Mike sits in front of me, a big happy smile on his face, all that soul history still inside him.
You never know the truth about anybody by just looking at them. I’m pretty invisible – a flat-chested 60-year old – so it’s nice to fly under the judgment radar but of course I too get sized up whenever I meet a new human. Neuroscientists would tell us it’s part of the brain’s mechanism for ensuring a safe environment but we need to outgrow those primitive mindsets and reprogram our intuitive responses. It’s too risky at this point, to judge a guy by his white teeth or a woman by her clothing. It’s also pretty clear that our politicians never bothered much about kids like Mike, because it was that cultural demographic that elected Trump. So unseen and unheard, people living in the scrapheap of the company towns lined up at their junior high school and voted for a guy who paid attention.
Here’s a great story about judgment from one of my heroes, Mother Teresa. In her book, The Soul of Money, Lynn Twist recounts meeting the tiny nun in India where she was still tending to the throw-away humans of Calcutta. On her way there, accompanied by a nephew of Gandhi who was literally stepping over beggars, Twist was horrified by his indifference. Nonplussed – and likely used to wide-eyed American philanthropists making judgments, he patiently schooled Ms. Twist about the fact that begging is an industry in India and mothers will deliberately blind their babies or amputate their limbs to make them more pathetic and profitable.
Can’t judge that book by its cover.
Twist then has a private and highly emotional one-one meeting with Mother Teresa which is interrupted by a loud and lavish Indian couple, fat and bejeweled, obviously very rich. They manhandle the little nun and demand a photo. She complies, smiling and they hustle out of the hall, still arguing. Twist is again blown away. How could these rich people be so horrible to this saint? Mother Teresa eventually explains with patience: do you think that rich people don’t suffer? America, the tiny mystic tells us, suffers deeply from “poverty of the soul,” perhaps just as emotionally painful as physical poverty. Mother Teresa – her heart wide open with compassion, didn’t exclude someone from her gracious love because they were rich. She made no judgements, and simply diligently offered help where it was needed. My inner chatter is much harsher when I’m sizing up the rich. I need to remember that suffering isn’t connected to a bank account.
Mike has opened my eyes wider. Still freshly awakened by his particular story, I am less interested in my own fiction about the cashier at Staples, the young girl at the gym, or the gnarled hand that reaches out to me on just about every corner of Boulder. As Pope Francis said when asked about homosexuals, Who am I to judge? If Mike hadn’t told me about his harsh beginnings, I would have sashayed through our connection with my assumptions fully intact. I like that he blew them up and I’m wildly excited about more of that and less of my tired smugness. When dentures or high heels, saris, head scarves, age or skin color trigger some complacent summary of a life in my head, I’m just not going to believe it. Here’s what I’ll try instead, because it’s a universal truth: Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a burden.