Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
We live in fractured times, in a nation of factions rife with competing agendas. Rabid partisans on both sides jettison nuance in an attempt to demonize and dehumanize the other. Republicans condemn Democrats, Democrats decry Republicans, Pro-Lifers protest Pro-Choicers, and Pro-Choicers mock Pro-Lifers. And on it goes. Yet focusing primarily on what divides us conceals what we share; it hides our humanity behind a label.
The HONY project speaks to what it means to be human, to see the image of God in every person.Bucking this trend is Humans of New York (HONY), a web project that immerses its followers in idiosyncrasy, celebrating the uniqueness of each person and highlighting humanity’s breadth and depth. Brandon Stanton, the site’s creator, set out to capture 10,000 New York City residents through word and image, and the results run counter to the dehumanizing trends in our contemporary world. Rather than painting the denizens of NYC with a broad brush deleterious to detail, Stanton revels in the singularity of each of his subjects. A brief perusal of the site shows a range of ethnicities, races, genders, ages, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, and human contexts. Stanton’s site captures in microcosm an essential thread in a diverse tapestry.
Captions to these images range from quirky to anxious, religious to depraved. Reductionist, they are not. They shatter our preconceived conceptions about the other, underscoring C. S. Lewis’s statement—in A Grief Observed—that “[a]ll reality is iconoclastic.”
One of my favorite examples of this is a photograph of a younger man—probably in his late 20s, early 30s—with an unapologetic Mohawk, leather wristbands, and a punk-rock ensemble. The caption offers a complicated narrative of this individual, one that doesn’t fit well into a tidy category:
I did 8.5 years on an attempted murder charge.
[. . .]
Some thirty year old dude kept harassing my twelve year old sister. He’d wait outside her school and invite her to parties. So I tried to kill him.
He appears to be a rebel, perhaps a drug user, certainly a criminal, a ne’er-do-well, maybe someone who wasn’t going anywhere in his life because he wasn’t willing to “straighten up.” And his first sentence reinforces that appearance. But, as we would likely assume from his image, his crime was not motivated by rebellion. Instead, he was protecting his younger sister from someone who was probably attempting to molest her. This explanation provides an unexpected connection between the viewer and the subject.
The categories above—rebel, drug user, criminal, ne’er-do-well—detract from the fullness of his story. Yes, attempted murder is horrific, but his motivation hits close to home, as we reflect on previous vigilante impulses we may have felt toward pedophiles or crooked CEOs. The image and caption highlight that we can share, with someone so different, a sense of outrage at the evil in this world.
And then there is a picture of an older black man whose caption points to a surprising narrative. While he decries gun violence, blaming it on European colonizers of America, we find that he participated in America’s unpopular military activity in Vietnam, sacrificing an eye to the conflict. His anti-gun stance has experience behind it that we may not have guessed at first.
Sometimes the photos teach us something about a country and culture that we probably don’t have much interaction with, like this young man from Belize, pictured with his daughter sleeping against his chest. When we read of the challenges he faced in his home country, we get a sense of very real battles—costly ones—fought in places largely forgotten by most Americans.
Taking in entry after entry from the Humans of New York project, something subtle happens: we see a bit of ourselves in the pictures and words. We see our struggles more clearly through the lens of their struggles. These day-to-day struggles—personal, political, social—enable us to see both the light and the darkness in each of the people captured on HONY, mirroring ourselves and spotlighting our own strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. This website complicates—if not devastates—the labels we foist on others. We are forced to see them for the unique person each is. . . and we can’t help but to relate to them with a visceral humanity. HONY reminds us of our common origin, the source of our shared humanity, recounted in Genesis 5:1-2:
This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.
With every picture and every caption, HONY gives us an opportunity to know others as they are, wherever and whoever they are. And, yet, in getting to know each of these people, we come to find multiple points of connection. These particularities paradoxically point to commonality. We indeed find “fearfully and wonderfully, divinely-designed uniqueness,” to borrow from Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans.” All humanity, every single one of us, was made in the image of God, reflecting the unity-in-diversity of the Trinitarian union.
The HONY project speaks to what it means to be human, what it means to see the image of God in every person. Although painful and difficult, we must be willing to face the concrete and particular, even the eccentric, not in order to hold others at a distance, but rather to allow reality to do its work and dispense with misleading appearances and preconceptions that divide. Doing so may strike unexpected chords of resonance.
It’s we ourselves who need breaking—for the sake of others we’re called to serve in all their beautiful singularity, obstinate otherness, and surprising sameness. For the sake of the gospel and the Good News we proclaim, may we ever be open to such shattering.
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