Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.

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Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.

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My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.

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Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

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Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.

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Orphans Broke My Heart and Put It Together Again

While tutoring orphans in the Dominican Republic, I witnessed something I will never forget.

At dusk one evening, children from across the orphanage compound began to converge on the main courtyard. Blankets in hand, they ran barefoot to win an advantageous position and sit cross-legged on the flagstones. As the sun set, a group of upturned faces waited for the show.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to José, an orphanage staffer.

“It’s Wednesday,” he explained. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover“Oh,” I said, pretending this made everything plain.

José disappeared into the administrative building and soon returned rolling a TV stand before him. Children of all ages waited in utter silence, as if poised to see something miraculous. José withdrew a VHS tape from its jacket, inserted it in a dusty player, and adjusted the tracking to banish pesky static from an overused cassette.

Disney’s castle materialized in the dark. An animated feature began, bathing that sea of orphan children in blue light. It was the story of Tarzan, an orphaned child raised by gorillas in the jungle. Though he tries to be a good gorilla, Tarzan is different. His family is gone. He never feels as if he belongs.

I looked over those children and saw fifty humans absorbing this story and relating to it as I never could.

In the movie, people finally arrive in Tarzan’s jungle. Two of them, a naturalist father and daughter, choose to stay. They become Tarzan’s family. He is found. He belongs.

These orphans in the Dominican Republic yearned to be Tarzan. To be found. To become part of a family and be loved. The tale of Tarzan represented great hope to these children. And to me this experience drove home two unassailable truths. First, anybody who grows up with a loving family has already won. To exist alongside people who care about you, rather than inside an orphanage jammed with lonely lost children – that is a stroke of fortune greater than any treasure.

Second, I understood more deeply the power of hope. One of my idols, Charlie Appelstein, a youth care specialist from New Hampshire, always says, “Hope is humanity’s fuel.” Without hope for a better future, people have no energy to forge ahead. This is especially true for children who face tough circumstances.

IMG_0004-1Years later, I wonder where these orphans are today. I wonder if those two sweet boys who hugged me hard and long before I flew away have found someplace where they can be surrounded by people whose love they deserve. I like to believe they did. At the very least, I like to believe that they could find and build a family, given the right turns of luck and opportunity. The only thing that might make such goodness bloom in the world is hope. Hope has legs. It can carry us beyond the trials and hurdles that we face personally and perhaps as a species.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Keep your hope for change. I’ll cling to my guns and religion.” For me, this threw sharp relief between the notion of hope and fear. Both states of mind motivate us. However, one is positive, it begs the question: what good can we create? It eschews the bitter flavor of paranoia and cynicism.

I have hope. And I pray that you do too, for our collective dreams are made manifest in the world every single day.

I hope we can formulate policies that make poverty, homelessness, crime, and orphanhood diminish. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. I hope we can continue to nurture our values of democracy, freedom, respect, rule of law, and equality; indeed, Western civilization sprang from these principles. I hope during the coming election year we can believe in good government run by honest people for the benefit of average Americans, a system of compromise through incremental improvements.

Of politics nowadays, David Brooks writes in the New York Times: “Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”

We can do better. David Brooks knows it. I know it. You know it. As voters and social media users and engaged citizens, we should demand it.

Thank you, I will keep my hope for change, because almost everything good in this world – from sports to business to love to liberty to social stability – springs from positive yearning. Politically, we are like those orphans. In the courtyard of our country we sit together before an unknown future, mesmerized by a shared vision. And like those orphans, despite our differences, we all share almost exactly the same needs.

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The Dominican Republic: Where Tarzan Is Real

7A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.

Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.

With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.

I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.

When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.

That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.

39530_lgWe gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.

We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!

I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.

They had dreams.

IMG_0004-1I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.

After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.

“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.

“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

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I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.

I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.

Tarzan 2It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.

Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?

I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.