I had to run a work errand this afternoon around 3 p.m. As I made this short trip, I was reading a magazine article by Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun who has excelled at taking complicated concepts and framing them in a Western context using plain language.
This particular article was about kindness – genuine, “ultimate kindness” that comes from “softening what is rigid in our hearts.”
But as I read the article while waiting on the Red Line platform, I quickly became aware of a group of kids in their early teens who were crouching rather suspiciously next to a column in the station. The kids caught my attention because they dressed and acted exactly like a group of middle schoolers who have committed both petty and violent crimes in my NW DC neighborhood.
I tensed up. In June, I watched a group of middle schoolers near my house viciously attack a man walking to work. When I tried to intercede, they came after me. Earlier this month, another group of kids tried to attack my neighbor, again in front of my house. When my partner and I attempted to stand up to the kids, they came after us.
The similarity between the groups of kids in my neighborhood and the teens I was standing near was sobering.
“Soften what is rigid in your heart,” I mumbled under my breath as I saw those kids today, mentally chastising myself for categorizing this group of teens based on their skin color, clothing and mannerism. But no sooner than I had muttered the words, the kids intentionally pushed a man into another column under the guise of bumping into him. The man, who seemed timid, gave an uneasy apologetic nod, which immediately was met with a hard slap on the back of his head by another of the cadre, who then told the man, “Oh, sorry man. I thought you was my friend.”
Everyone watched nervously as the group got up, swaggering with a type of sick confidence that only a life-long bully could appreciate. As the train pulled up to the platform opposite me, the kids continued, pushing an elderly man against the train before it had completely stopped. Had it not been crowded, the man would have fallen to the ground and could have been seriously hurt.
Seeing this unfold literally made me sick to my stomach. But what could I do? My own personal experience tells me that if the kids came after me, no one in the station would have come to my aid.
As I boarded my own train, the magazine article still in my hand, I started questioning whether or not it was right for me to stereotype this group of teens, especially since my initial hunch had been the right one. For that matter, was I even stereotyping? Because my gut made the valid assumption that I should stay far away from this group of people.
I continued reading Pema Chödrön’s article with a realization that, especially in an urban environment, one can’t just open their heart to every stranger they meet or assume the best when coming across a group of kids. It makes me uncomfortable, primarily because I want to break my own patterns of behavior for the betterment of the world around me. But it’s also discomforting because I have to accept that life on the Right Path isn’t anywhere as easy as it sounds when you read a book or attend a talk.