I don’t own a car. Instead of jumping in my own vehicle every morning and driving to work, I walk and catch public transport. It eats up a lot of my day, but the walking is good for me. So is the space I get travelling in splendid isolation surrounded by Brisbane’s other white-collar workers journeying to and from the city. I used to spend this time listening to music, but that soon got stale, so I downloaded some podcasts in the hope that I might learn a few things. I have; I’ve laughed and cried listening to some of these. Yes, I’m that person on the bus. I’m sorry, but I guess I’m not really sorry.
This American Life is a staple for anyone who listens to podcasts. A while ago, the week’s theme was Hit the Road, and it featured three stories about road trips of different kinds. It’s an episode that I keep thinking about all these months later. The first story was told by Andrew Forsthoefel, and featured audio he took while walking from Philadelphia to New Orleans, then all the way across to the Pacific Ocean. The whole time he wore a sign that read, “Walking to Listen”. Sometimes people would stop him and talk to him. These conversations make up the bulk of the story.
When he enters the southern United States, Andrew tells of the people who would take him in, feed him and give him a place to sleep that night. Often they would warn him not to go to the next town because “They’re not friendly like us. They’ll shoot you for the shirt off your back. Don’t trust them.” But he would go, and those very people he was warned about would take him in, feed him and let him sleep in their homes.
One conversation in particular got me down deep. I got all misty-eyed sitting by myself on a CityCat:
Andrew Forsthoefel: So what was it like back in the old days?
Woman: Oh god, honey. I’ve done got old and forgetful. And I’ve done forgot I used to know about that stuff. But all I can tell you is it was scary.
I never will forget, we were picking butter beans. And we had picked a bag that was in the garden for a white man. And the wife told us to go bring in some water.
And we got the buckets out of the kitchen and went sailing through the hole to the well. Got the buckets full. And when we got back to the steps, he said, “You niggers, don’t you all come back up those steps. Go and run in the house with that water to the kitchen.” And we said, “Yes, sir.”
Andrew Forsthoefel: Now what do you think about those people who are so mean and hateful? What do you feel about them?
Woman: I feel like they ain’t looking for a great day. I’m looking for a great day, you know, when I see my Jesus face to face. You don’t do evil for evil.
They hate you all. You all love them. And I thought, how could I love somebody tell me, you nigger, don’t you come back up them steps, go round the house?
Now how could I love somebody, Lord? And he said, that’s the rule. That’s the golden rule. Love thy neighbour as thyself. And I got to do what he says. I’ve got to love them.
And I just have so many thoughts about that. This woman has faced more hardship than I ever will, and she has learned to love her enemies. Or maybe she’s still learning, but it sure sounds to me like she’s getting there.
‘Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you‘ is so commonly heard I’m pretty sure it’s lost its scandalous effect on us, but stories like this bring it back. The people this woman is instructed to love might never have realised what they did to her was wrong, but she loves them anyway. The systems that governed her dictated she be humble her whole life, but she still has to humble herself again and love the people who kept those systems in place. Where is the justice in that!
At the same time, there’s something so right about it: “You don’t do evil for evil”, and I’m so grateful for it. These stories of grace, forgiveness and redemption never fail to move me—even ParaNorman had me weeping quietly to myself on a plane from London to New York. I think it’s because I’m not actually any different to that white man the woman is learning to love. Just about everything I have in life has been possible for me because of a brutal legacy from which I benefit every day, and I perpetuate oppressive systems that are so entrenched I don’t even realise that’s what I’m doing.
Actively thinking about all of this is hard because it makes me realise I can’t really love my neighbour the same way I love myself, by myself. Even if I have the goodness of heart and unshakable resolve to make it happen, being a good neighbour, loving my enemy and putting other people ahead of myself is not within my power alone.
I can try and love someone who is different from me, I can wish them well and be nice to them, but unless I’m able to identify and challenge those systems that benefit me and oppress them, how possibly can I love them? I’ve heard it said that all the world’s religions boil down to “Don’t be a dick”, but I can be a “good person” without actually living out selflessness in any meaningful way. This isn’t about me lacking the capacity to always do the right thing (although that in itself is a problem), it’s about the fact that although I strive to do what is right, and even as I try to eliminate injustice from the way I live, I cannot even begin to fathom how to repent of it.
It seems hopeless. How can we love each other—really love each other—when the minutiae of our lives makes us incapable of genuine selflessness? I think the answer might lie in walking to listen. I should not give up and stop walking, but my walking needs to be about other people—every step seeking out voices that are rarely heard and really learning from what they have to say. How else will I even know where to begin?