humanize – verb | \ˈhyü-mə-ˌnīz, ˈyü-\
: to represent as human : attribute human qualities to
: to make humane
I feel afraid a lot lately.
Two weeks ago, I heard on the news that a man posing as a police officer pulled a car over at gunpoint near our home. I needed to travel that same route at about the same time just a few days later. Fear almost made me cancel my plans and stay home.
A man whose coworkers never thought him capable of such violence accumulated a massive arsenal of weapons in his home and, with his wife, killed 14 and wounded 21 during a holiday party. A holiday party. With that in mind, last weekend as I walked among the holiday crowds in downtown Chicago celebrating a friends’ birthday, my usual sense of crowd phobia was compounded by the fear that one of the people around me would suddenly, and inexplicably, begin shooting or stabbing or bombing the shoppers.
Last month, a young pregnant woman was brutally raped and murdered in her home after her husband left early for the gym. Every day my husband leaves early for his commute, I wonder if it’s even safe for me to work at home anymore.
I watch suspiciously if a stranger approaches me; I stand on guard anytime I am in public. I watch for shifty eyes and sudden moves. People who look different than me receive extra scrutiny, especially men, especially dark-skinned men.
It’s a horrible way to live, really. It’s a horrible way to walk around in life, not wanting to be surprised by the couple no one ever suspected of such violence and so assuming everyone else is the enemy.
The thesaurus says “assurance” is the opposite of fear. I think assurance would go a long way in helping me live normally — assurance that I won’t be held at gunpoint in my own car or mowed down with a semiautomatic rifle at a holiday party or brutally raped in my own home. Who isn’t looking for these kinds of assurances? But not one victim of the crimes mentioned above believed they would be targeted and attacked. They thought they had some basic level of assurance.
“Calmness” also is the opposite of fear, and I don’t think I’m alone in needing a good dose of an old fashioned chill pill. The rhetoric of fear flying around social media and traditional media borders on psychotic. If political polls are any indication, fear is driving us toward beliefs and actions we would normally be appalled by. More than a little calm is needed to keep us from becoming the thing we fear the most: violent, intolerant bigots.
But being calm isn’t always the answer to violence and injustice. Maybe we’ve sat back calmly for too long, letting other voices speak that don’t truly represent us.
There in the last column of antonyms, almost at at the end of the list, is another word that is the opposite of fear: love. The Bible says “perfect love drives out fear,” and I wonder what kind of love that is. It’s hard for me to love “them,” to love thugs and imposters and terrorists. A black man raped the young woman in her home, and in my fear, it would be easy to hate all black people. A man with a gun impersonated a police officer, and in my fear, it would be easy to hate all gun owners. A Muslim couple, one an immigrant, terrorized the holiday party, and in my fear, it would be easy to hate all Muslims and all immigrants and especially all Muslim immigrants.
In my fear, it’s easier to hate.
But love drives out fear. Love is the opposite of fear. I am called to love.
I had never thought about it before, but even though God so loved the world — the whole world — He never called us to such a grand gesture. Honestly, I’m not sure I am even capable of that kind of love. Attempting to counteract fear by mustering up love for just a part of the world — all black people or gun owners or Muslims or immigrants — feels impossible.
Not that I don’t love black people or gun owners or Muslims or immigrants. I know and love people in each of these groups. But love doesn’t operate in generalities, and when God calls us to love, he does so very specifically.
“Love one another.”
“Love your enemy.”
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
“Who is my neighbor?” an expert in the law asked Jesus. And after telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan, he said that your neighbor is the person in front of you, the person in need, the person others overlook and abandoned, the last person in the world you would ever expect to love.
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to love people from every part of the world. Our love for others should be as wide as it is deep. But the kind of love that drives out fear, perfect love, is the love that reaches out to people one at time. It doesn’t harbor the fear of generality. It offers a hand, it looks another in the eye, it listens and learns.
So even as I live in fear, I’m trying a new strategy of love, one person at a time. The Hispanic man standing on the sidewalk in front of me? Rather than recoil in suspicion, I look up, I smile, I say, “Good morning.” The Middle Eastern cab driver? I climb up into the front seat with him and leave him a large tip. The scruffy white man pumping gas next to me at the convenience store? I ask him how he’s doing. The black homeless man who asked for money when I wasn’t able to help? I look him in the eye and tell him I’m sorry.
Thinking about people in generalities allows me to dehumanize them. And words like “thugs” and “terrorists” and “imposters” goes even further, highlighting only what is bad and evil. But loving people, strangers even, one at a time reminds that they are very human indeed, human like me.
I’m not naive enough to think a smile and hello will end terrorism and eradicate evil in the world. I had my cell phone ready to dial 911 the night I drove home where the police imposter had been. And while milling around in the crowd in downtown Chicago, I looked for exits and remained vigilant for unusual behavior. People from all walks of life have and will perpetrate untold evil on others. Evil is a kind of dehumanizing act of its own. I also know that a smile and hello are just the beginning of what it means to re-humanize my fellow citizens of the world one at a time with love. Real injustice exists for many, and simple answers are no better than broad generalizations. My husband and I seek out tangible ways to help the poor, hungry, sick, and disenfranchised. We need to get better at this, in fact.
But if I continue living in fear, I not only dehumanize others, I dehumanize myself. Only love, with its focused gaze and extended hand, drives out fear and restores the beating heart of being human.
What’s YOUR word of the week? Drop it into the comments section, or share it on this week’s Facebook post. If you post about your word on your blog, please slip the link into a comment below so I can stop by and join you.