When I told people I was running the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon, everyone I know who’d run one of the St. Jude races in past years told me the same thing. The best part, they asserted, was running through the St. Jude hospital campus and seeing all the children cheering on the runners. It made you understand why you were running, they said, and it is truly inspiring. Funny thing is I almost missed it. We had gotten to a point where the course narrowed and there was a row of a half dozen runners in front of me, side by side and impassable. It drives me nuts when people do this, and when two of them finally created a gap I could run through I was muttering pettily to myself about people being so rassa frassin’ clueless. At that point I happened to notice a bunch of children lining the course and cheering, so I waved and smiled. Not until I had almost run completely by them did it hit me: these were those children.
I don’t know what I expected to see when I ran through the campus. I guess I had certain expectations of how they would look, but in truth, they just looked like a bunch of kids. And that’s just it, isn’t it. They are just a bunch of kids. They want the same things any other kid wants, though they are going through something nobody would want, not at any age and certainly not as a child. One of the little girls featured prominently on the posters and brochures for the race looked disturbingly like JonBenet Ramsey to me, but before I could go too far down the path of questioning whether a little girl should be made up to look so mature, I snapped out of it. Hell, she could dress up like Jason Voorhees in a hockey mask holding a blood-drenched ax if she wanted given what she’s been through. I don’t know what it’s like to have cancer and I hope I never find out, but it’s not hard to empathize in this case.
It shouldn’t be hard to empathize in other cases either. Kids with cancer are kids. Kids who are undocumented, kids whose parents are on welfare, kids who speak a different language or practice a different religion, kids who are starting to feel like they just aren’t the same as most other people in some essential way—still kids. And if I can understand that for children, why not adults? I’m not naïve; I know it’s one thing to respect people who are different from you and another entirely to deal with huge, complex issues like crime and poverty. I haven’t a clue how to fix those issues in any meaningful, lasting way, but I have to believe that perceiving commonality while respecting difference is a decent start and something I can do in my everyday existence.
The human brain is wired to look for patterns. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s how we learn. It is also, potentially and unfortunately, how we end up stereotyping and scapegoating. These people are violent criminals. Those people are hateful bigots. That other group, they’re lazy and ignorant. And them, over there? Oh don’t get me started. But really, have you talked to them? Have you met any of “them”? I’m not suggesting that people have to go out and start up conversations with strangers to get to know them better, since I myself would never do that in a billion years. You really only have to look at the people you already know. Seriously. Among my own circle of friends there are people of different religions or no religion, people with different political stances, people whose first language wasn’t English and country of birth wasn’t the U.S., people who were undocumented, people who were on welfare, people whose gender is nonbinary, people with mental or physical handicaps—I could go on and on. We don’t always see eye to eye, no, but we are friends. Significantly, a lot of us met through running. You can run alongside someone for months with no clue what they do for a living or who they voted for or much else other than the fact that they love to do something you love too. When you do happen to find out something in another person that might make you go “ohhh” because it’s something you feel very deeply to be wrong, there’s that “ohhh” moment, but it’s usually followed by an “eh.” Whatever. We can still run together.
I don’t consider myself Christian and I know a little about the problematic history of the upcoming holidays, but to many people this time of year is in fact about a child. Well and good: let it be about a child, about a bunch of children for that matter. Let it be about what we blindly assume about certain children and about how we have the ability to question these assumptions if we choose to, if we just stretch our brains and hearts a tiny bit more. I took a risk writing this post; I hate sappiness and sentimentality, and I’m not sure I managed to get past all that to say something meaningful. But as with running, it’s an easy risk to take. The downside is minimal; the potential gain is huge.