Lead Us Not Into Penn Station

I’m not sure why, but lately, I’m hypersensitive to all the sounds that surround me. Maybe it’s because I’m used to a more rural environment that the sounds of the City are just that jarring to me. Maybe it’s because I’m living just next to the Garden State Parkway, which leaves in its wake a low, constant buzzing almost like that of a hummingbird. Whatever it is, lately I’ve heard it all.

I’ve heard the click-clack of the train that runs over the tracks in the morning, the screeching of its breaks, the muttering of passengers who’ve come to know one another, the familiar lines, “Tickets please,” or, “Remember, if you see something, say something,” the latter of which in reference to terrorism seems to be used to maintain a constant state of communal fear.

I’ve heard the taxis honking, the subway’s mechanical voice promising, “There is… a… local up-town train… one station… away.” I’ve heard quiet, though even quiet is filled with background noise: the harsh police sirens, a jackhammer, the wind weaving through and beating the buildings above – or is that the cars on the street? It sounds so similar to the buzzing of the Parkway. To this country-turned-city boy, so much of it is, well, kind of harsh. There’s no respite, it seems, in the sounds of the City.

In fact, the other morning, I heard screaming. A woman in the train car behind me was giving voice to some kind of anger, though I don’t know the cause. She ran through the aisle cussing at no one and then stood between two train cars. When the train pulled into Penn Station, she started screaming louder and began spitting on the glass door that was about to open – the one we were all standing behind. A man warned a woman in front of me, “Hey, watch out for this nutjob when the door opens.”

The screaming woman was obviously poor and in some kind of psychic pain. I thought immediately about the man’s use of the word “nutjob” to further disconnect her from us and how, in America, her mental illness and poverty were likely deeply in cahoots and were both things we used to see her as somehow “less” than us. For a moment – a brief moment – I considered attempting to console the woman or shaming the man for typecasting her in such a way that robbed her of her humanity. But I did nothing, said nothing. After all, she might spit on me. Or, I thought, I wasn’t trained or prepared to know how to deal with her situation. So I just let the words fill the air as more harsh sounds, and when the doors opened, the police entered the car and whisked the woman away. I have no idea what came of her. But I couldn’t escape the notion that her psychic pain was likely intensified by our collective apathy, or worse, our disdain for her situation which mirrored our fears of what could, perhaps, happen to us or to those we love. The police carted the ugliness away so we didn’t have to hear her suffering any longer. God bless them?

In one of his trips to encounter Syrian refugees, Pope Francis has remarked, “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!” I think he’s right. There’s no “suffering with” others; it’s us and them, and we want the sounds of their screams, their tears, their harsh contribution to the world to simply be removed, forgotten, compartmentalized from the public sphere. I find myself too often among those who want that.

But if I stopped there, having heard only the harsher sounds of the City, I don’t know what hope would be left. And I do know that I would not have heard all there was to hear:

On Thursday, I met with the director of three Christian-run hospitals that were set up to serve the people of Lebanon and, since the Syrian crisis, have come to serve (indeed, being overrun by) Syrian and Armenian refugees, as well. While much of what he shared was hard to hear, there was hope to it, too. He described the relationships between many Christians and Muslims in Syria and Lebanon as a “mosaic,” that in suffering together, their religious differences had not always gotten in the way of their willingness to help one another. He described churches which were distributing water to anyone, regardless of creed, in Aleppo since those ancient structures had been built on top of water wells. He described instances of Muslims protecting Christians from ISIS and vice versa. And he described the good work he was doing: offering psychosocial support for children experiencing PTSD, healthcare to refugees even when the UN refused to fund it and the clinic picked up the cost; the list went on and on, and in it all, what I heard was not the sound of dogma or hopelessness but of the dignity of all people and the hope of a brighter future for those currently entrenched in conflict.

In the afternoon, as I headed back home to New Jersey, there were certainly still those harsher sounds. But that’s not all I heard: I heard a violinist in the subway and a jazz band filling the air in Penn Station. I heard gratitude in all the chattering on the train and people ending their phone conversations with love. I heard conductors from the train wishing passengers a good day as they exited. I heard a car honk – but to get the attention of an old friend. And as I got closer to the humming of the Parkway, I heard a mourning dove cooing a friendly reminder that it’s finally spring.

What I’ve noticed for me is that there are some sounds that pull me back into the full symphony of life. It’s so easy, so tempting to get sucked into one section or hear only a solo and be convinced of the domination that sound holds over the whole corpus. But while the ambiance of brokenness is assuredly in harmony with the ambiance of love, we need not forget that love leads the melody. Sure it’s all happening at once, each screech and scream perhaps isolated to a painful solo that in that moment needs to be heard, but what the mourning dove or the violinist or the kind conductor adds to the world is not isolated but is heard by those with ears willing to listen. And so, too, we contribute our own euphony or cacophony to the orchestra of life. Sometimes, we give both. Sometimes, we give more of one than the other. And sometimes, for better or for worse, we find ourselves silent. What we add or take away from the symphony is often entirely up to us; other times it isn’t. But perhaps the best we can do is simply listen, to be as aware as we can of how it all comes together (or doesn’t); that before we decide to contribute, we know exactly what we’re going to offer and why and how it belongs in this space where there are so many other sounds seemingly detached but, in truth, are just a completely different instrument yet still in connection with one symphony. Needless to say, I guess I’m a little thankful that I’ve been so hypersensitive to all these sounds lately. They might just have something to teach me.

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