This was written after visiting Fort Scott, an old army fort in Kansas at the edge of the “permanent” Indian Boundary. It was built in 1842 and a town grew up around it. George Washington Carver briefly attended school in the town of Fort Scott as a boy in the mid 1870s.
But I’m not really interested in writing about Fort Scott itself.
In the last couple of months, I have passed through at least a dozen tiny towns in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and now Kansas, who are trying to make a few dollars on the tourism trade off the history of their town. The story is always that in the 18X0s the townsfolk were at each other’s throats, the hostilities almost always culminating in a decisive and very bloody shootout. Sometimes the town can add a bit of interest by noting that Billy the Kid (he sure got around a lot) or some other famous outlaw was a part of it.
The conflict was usually over a piece of land or oil or slave versus free politics, like in Fort Scott, or in one case even the rights to run the general store. But it was never really about these things. It wasn’t about the oil or the land or even abolition, and I do not mean to belittle this very important issue, but the white free-state proponents were just as bloodthirsty and violent as their white pro-slavery opponents. What the conflict is about is never what the conflict is about.
I am writing part of this post while sitting at an old student’s desk in a one room schoolhouse built of limestone rocks on the Kansas prairie in 1882, less than two decades after the Civil War ended and Kansas was officially and permanently a free state.
I’ve been wrestling with what the conflict is actually about for the last couple months especially, but to be honest, I’ve never really understood it since I sat in (the only slightly more comfortable hard plastic chairs of) my own middle school classroom, learning about slavery, the Civil War, and many of the horrible things that people can do to each other. Sure, I can write you a nice essay on many social and economic factors that led up to the Civil War, but that doesn’t really address the heart of the issue.
Which, I am starting to think, is fear. Fear of the “other.” Of what, or who, we don’t know.
Because what I don’t know about might hurt me. But other people that look like me, talk like me, think like me, have similar experiences as me, I can understand. I don’t have to fear.
And yet, paradoxically, we don’t want the other to be too similar, either. The mere mention of human cloning is enough to put most people on edge, and if you ask anyone if they would like a clone of themselves, most will vehemently say no. Because we also value our uniqueness.
I don’t have a good handle on this issue yet, so feel free to disagree. These are simply some of my musings while driving slowly through sparsely populated territories.
I’ve mentioned several times that I am learning to accept myself for who I am, but such acceptance does not give me permission to run roughshod over others because “that’s just the way I am,” and I don’t get to be rude or mean because “social skills are harder for me.”
On the flip side, being direct is not necessarily rude, and I don’t have to conform too rigidly to how other people expect me to behave or act or speak, just to satisfy their sense of propriety. It is a fine line.
And acceptance of self also is not permission to indulge in my anger, frustration, guilt, selfishness, etc. or to take these out on others. It requires that I peel away the layers of hurt and anger and wounds that distance me from my true self, my core self. Accepting myself is not accepting my anger. But ignoring or pushing down my hurt and anger is also an unhelpful tactic—that’s the one I’ve been trying most of my life, and it has reached a breaking point. I need to do the work, in love, of healing those old wounds so as to get to my actual true self, unburdened by all the little and big hurts of childhood and life.
That’s a tall order. Even just identifying what those hurts are, is hard. Most of the time I don’t even think there is anything wrong, and then I get instantly frustrated at some little annoyance, or say something mean without even thinking, or want to run away when someone else makes an “innocent comment”—those reactions are not coming out of the blue, they come from somewhere inside, often deep inside, or far in my past, depending on how you want to look at it.
Now that I’ve seen that connection enough times in myself, when I see someone around me flare up over something small, I’m less likely to respond to the anger itself and more likely to think “oh, he’s just hurt” and want to give him a hug.
Some things in this world need and deserve righteous anger, but being stuck behind a slow driver, or an error at the checkout, a stubbed toe, or a partner forgetting the bread at the store, or any of the thousand other little inconveniences of daily life, are just that, inconveniences. And that slow driver and the checkout clerk and the partner are all themselves trying their best to get along in this difficult world.
Philo of Alexandria said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
The schoolhouse is now memorialized as part of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The acoustics in here are favorable for some hymns and I imagine the school children singing a song together each morning, their voices uniting in a beautiful chorus, yet each voice unique.
If we can each work through those old layers of anger and hurt and fear, we can be more open to the “other” and less afraid of finding someone so different that they cannot be known. That really would be a path to peace.
Some may say that is an impossible dream. Maybe it is. This is all just speculation, after all.
In such reflective moments, I dare to dream impossible dreams.