A Common Humanity

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. – George Orwell, “A Hanging”

One of Orwell’s gifts as a writer, in my opinion, was his ability to see the humanity of others, even those who were supposed to be his enemies. In his 20s, Orwell served in the British Imperial Police in Burma, which meant he was part of the oppressive system that generated Britain’s wealth and maintained her empire. He hated it. Where his countrymen saw a dirty and backwards people, he saw individuals who lived and breathed and struggled with the same problems he did. He recognized that a man who was going to die in a few minutes didn’t want to spend those minutes walking around with cold, wet feet any more than Orwell did.

I was reminded of Orwell’s account when a friend who has spent time at Peace House Community commented on how rare it is for serious conflicts to erupt at PHC. I don’t remember her exact phrase, but it was something like, “Everyone tries to get along, even when they’re cold and wet from the rain. There really aren’t many big blow ups.”

I’ve often had the same thought. I know what I can be like if I’m hungry, or have a headache, or whatever. If, like many of our community members, I was tired because I was freezing all night and hadn’t had breakfast yet while my arthritis racked my body because it was 37 degrees and raining, all at the same time, I can’t imagine that I’d be very cheerful, or hospitable, or understanding, or self-controlled. When I see others in those situations, handle themselves with even a measure of self-control, I have to respect them. Once in a while their frustration spills out into a temper tantrum, but hurling insults is better than throwing punches. Indeed, it is often proof of how hard they are working to be civil. I’ve seen people desperately want to punch someone in the face because so much has gone wrong in their lives, and they want to explode. Instead, they manage to control themselves, at least a little.

I think part of the reason the community members get along as well as they do is that they recognize each other’s humanity. They all know they are facing similar struggles, and that fighting amongst themselves won’t help. Even members who can’t stand each other will make an effort to peacefully coexist, simply because they don’t want to make things worse for everyone.

So, while I don’t harbor any delusions that PHC is full of angels in human form, I still feel blessed to be in the presence of some noble fallen humans.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

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