In the early 2000s, when I was a bi-vocational pastor for an Evanston church on Chicago’s North Shore, my wife and I had something of a Sunday afternoon ritual — a three-mile walk down Sheridan Road to Carmen’s Pizza in Rogers Park across from Loyola University. Once fed, we’d take the CTA Purple Line back north to the Davis stop, where we’d join our members for our weekly prayer meeting. Sweet memories.
But mixed in with this is the recollection of being run off the sidewalk repeatedly by young’uns in conversation, two or three abreast. Seeing them approach, we’d shift to single file, expecting them to do the same. But often, they’d hold their formation, and we’d find ourselves veering onto the grass to avoid contact or conflict. This was puzzling.
I wondered if maybe it was a case of “ageism” against sexagenarians. Perhaps it was a matter of them thinking, “Hey, we’re the hope of tomorrow, and you’re pretty much goners. Step aside.” But on the few occasions that I called this rudeness to their attention, they seemed oblivious to what had happened. Nothing like, “Yeah. Well, deal with it.” So, an alternative theory occurred to me — that these folks (roughly 16 to 24 years old) were so obsessed with or thrilled by shoulder-to-shoulder relationships in the lineup that they were blind to others coming their way from ahead. Maybe it wasn’t so much an affront to us as a testimony to adolescent cohort fixation.
Perhaps they were like the 15-strong nerd lineup along the wall at the dance in Sixteen Candles, with (Evanston’s own) John Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, and a friend scanning the darkened hall with night vision goggles. Awkwardness loves company. On the other hand, maybe they were preoccupied with their association with some sort of status marker. I think of Bluto in Animal House (played by John Belushi, another Chicagoland native from the western suburbs). Though his progress toward a degree at Faber was doubtful, he proudly wore a sweatshirt that simply bore the word “COLLEGE.” In this vein, I’d suggest that one or more of those sidewalk sweepers could have qualified for a shirt announcing “SOPHOMORE” (from the Greek for “wise + witless”), with the wearer’s pretensions gainsaid by his foolishness.
Of course, we should all don such sweatshirts from time to time, and admitting this should help us manage more charity as we size up the vexatious people in our lives. I think of the maxim I pinned up in my study carrel when, as a budding pastor in the 1980s, I was getting blowback at certain points: “Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained in terms of ignorance.” (In hindsight, I should have printed out copies for the entire membership to consider as they evaluated me.)
This being said, I assure you I’m convinced that there are a lot of vile, willfully ignorant, mendacious, and stunningly destructive folks out there who despise the best of what we are and hold under God. But I believe many march only reflexively beside them, more befuddled or anxious than zealous. Still, they’re party to the mow-down of “deplorables.”
I think there is hope for these insecure conscripts and hangers-on. I believe they are susceptible to continual and reasonable rebuke and instruction: “Hey, come on! Watch where you’re going” — the sort of thing we should hear from pulpits, journals of opinion, blogs and vlogs, political campaigns, broadcast alternatives, homeschool consortiums, and conversations throughout the land. They won’t like it at first … or second or third. The cultural stupor is pervasive. But what a joy it is to see the newly awakened gasping for the fresh air of no-longer-so-common sense.
One more thing, a word about those who did move aside, but only at the last minute. Maybe they were planning to do this all along but didn’t want to rush the maneuver. If so, they’re like the folks who roar down upon a side street stop sign, braking from 30 to 0 miles per hour in the last 15 yards. They have no intention of T-boning your car, but they scare the willies out of you by their apparent indifference to cross traffic.
Point is, if you’re going to be thoughtful in the end, signal early on that you’ll be amenable to reason down the line, that you’re not oblivious to welfare, and thinking of those who have chosen a different course. It makes things less crazy and more hopeful.