The Person in There

This December I got to lead the annual Homeless Memorial March, an event that honors those who died in the past year who were either homeless or formerly homeless. It was the fifth time in seven years that I led the March, an honor I received because I carry Luna, a huge “puppet” mounted on a backpack frame. Luna has become the symbol of the March and al it stands for. When Luna rides on my shoulders, she’s about 12 feet tall.

The March ends at church where we hold a service memorializing those who have died. As participants file in, I scramble out from under Luna while two other volunteers lean her against the wall. As you might expect, something as big as Luna is quite heavy, weighing in at maybe 70 pounds.

A couple of years ago, as I emerged from Luna’s robes, I heard someone express surprise that I had carried her during the entire March. They weren’t surprised at my strength; instead, they had come to think of Luna as a person in her own right, and seeing an actual person broke the illusion. The individual probably felt the same I did when I saw how the Muppets worked.

What struck me most was the conversation that developed between this person and my friend John, who had carried Luna a few years earlier and always attended the March and service. “It’s easy to forget there’s a person under all that,” he commented.

I don’t like to admit it, but I need to hear John’s comment regularly in my relationships with others. I often fall into the trap of viewing others in terms of how convenient or inconvenient they make my life, or what category I can slip them into to quickly understand them. I look at surface characteristics and decide from there if I want to get to know the person better. In other words, I reduce people to two dimensional caricatures and forget that there’s a real person in there.

Being a strong introvert and not being skilled at reading people, I may be more prone to this failing than most people. I have difficulty reading people and don’t often ask questions to get to know them. But I know I am not alone in this weakness. I have read enough comments on social media and listened to enough casual conversations to realize that most (if not all) of us feel justified in passing judgments about others based on the scantest of information. In one way this is understandable; we need to categorize the things around us to make sense of the world. But at the same time, when we categorize a person the way we categorize things, we forget the person in there.

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.