There it was in my inbox. An email from someone—written by someone else and forwarded to me—that highlighted what the defense was not allowed to introduce in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida man acquitted of killing seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin.  Despite his acquittal, the email suggested that there was more evidence—Martin’s truancy and marijuana-related school suspension—that further proved Zimmerman’s innocence.

I lost my shit.  I lost my shit because I thought it was an unnecessary email. I lost my shit because, in this country, we don’t put victims on trial—no matter how many emails suggest that we should. I lost my shit because I have friends of all stripes who’ve been heartbroken over this verdict. I lost my shit because I have a seventeen-year-old stepson who likes to wear hoodies and shouldn’t be judged, harassed, stalked, or killed for that. It’s likely the sender of the email never considered any of those things.

Despite my better judgment to ignore it, I replied, “Don’t ever send me any email like this again.”  I next got an email implying I didn’t have an open mind.

While the original email may have had racial overtones, I don’t think the sender—or forwarder, in this case—is a racist.  I think their experience is so far removed from the life of an African-American teenager and his parents that certain things would not occur to them. My life is far removed, too, though I try hard to be empathetic of others’ experiences. Sometimes my compassion is in short supply—I’m not perfect. Thankfully, I live in a place where I’m surrounded everyday by people whose lives are different from mine—African-American, Asian, Dominican, Muslim, Jewish, gay, lesbian, transgender, old people, teens, cat people, ferret people, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, I can be judgmental. I can even be intolerant. But my intolerance is usually limited to bad techno music, cigarette smoking, and ignorance.  Especially ignorance.

On the days I’m not thinking about Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy, I’m thinking of “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford. I first read this poem, which has become a favorite, over ten years ago when a friend shared it with me. I’ve wanted to post it here for awhile; recent events made me see just how important it is. It perfectly sums up how little we know of each other, whether it’s the stranger on the street, your co-workers, your best friend, or your spouse. No one’s life story is tattooed on their forehead. Much of who we are and what forms us is hidden away, what Stafford calls “the darkness.” There’s no question: The country is divided over everything from the essential to the frivolous. Our opinions are out of the gate before our thoughts even have a chance to catch up. But if, like the poem says, we at least know that we don’t really know each other (“it is important that awake people be awake”), we just may create a bridge to understanding.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

—William Stafford