What does it mean to be human in Northampton?

I have lived and loved Northampton since 1980. During my years here I have served on many boards, volunteered for many organizations, giv...



I have lived and loved Northampton since 1980. During my years here I have served on many boards, volunteered for many organizations, given birth to my son in our local hospital, have sent to public schools and involved in several faith communities. . I have participated in hundreds of political campaigns, marches, vigils, marches, rallies, die-ins and teachings. I live near Northampton city center and travel to our city center almost daily.

I love Northampton and have had it for decades, but I’m disheartened by the tone of negativity and hyper-criticism that seems to be present in our civic discourse lately. It seems that the divisions among us have opened up into great gulfs.

I am concerned about the tone of the public speech, the accusations in the letters to the editor of this newspaper, the derogatory comments at city council meetings, the hurtful messages in the various mailing lists I receive, and the fingering, the blame and shame that seem to occur more frequently in the “public square”.

Maybe I’m naive or looking back with selective memory, but I don’t recall the tone of public discourse being so negative and angry during all my years in Northampton. This new reality makes me very sad and I don’t know what to do or how to help.

Looking for a few words of comfort and inspiration, I picked up one of my favorite books from my shelf and started leafing through it. The book “What does it mean to be human?” Includes over 100 short essays from esteemed thinkers around the world pondering this question. The offerings are extremely diverse in nature, the writing is elegant and understated, and the book is packed with wisdom from famous authors, religious leaders and public figures including the Dalai Lama, Oscar Arias, Jimmy Carter, Naomi Shihab Nye, James Earl Jones, Joanna Macy, Lord Yehudi Menuhin and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As I looked through my copy of the book, seeing the many notations, underlines, and question marks I had inserted in previous reads, I found a phrase I had marked that jumped out at me. Ruth Slickman wrote: “How to be really human? At sixty-nine, I’m still trying to learn. I can understand – I’m 69 and still trying to learn.

What the book emphasizes trial after trial is that being human requires both patience and practice. Robert Aitken writes: “To be human is to learn what it is to be human and then practice it. It is standing firm in the face of inhumanity … It is standing firm and conspiring with others in their human practice.

As I went through the book and re-read some of the beautifully written essays, I found that I wish the tone of our speech at Northampton recognized the reality that we are all work in progress, we all practice being human, try, fail and try again. I wish we could remind ourselves that each of us makes mistakes. The point isn’t to prove you’re right, but to stay connected.

“Being human isn’t always about being successful, but it’s always about learning,” writes David Krieger in his essay. Trying, failing, being humble, and learning are themes woven throughout the book, as are the concept of respect for life and the call to be both loving and forgiving.

I know that I am a person with strong opinions, strong feelings, and an inappropriate tendency to say what is right or wrong. But I am also a person who, at 69 years old, is more and more aware of the transience and the fragility of life, and I have realized that I would rather lose the feeling of being right than lose my link with the community.

I have engaged in my share of shrill arguments and mini-lectures holier than you with those I think are misguided. But time does what time does well – polishing some of my sharp edges, increasing my sense of gratitude, and helping me recognize and remember that we are all partially right and definitely imperfect.

My self-righteousness over the years has led to damaged relationships, and living harmoniously in community is all about relationships. I realize that short-term victories born of criticism and anger can lead to unwanted and painful long-term consequences.

On my desk at home I have a folded index card with these words on it: “Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.” Thanks, Elie Wiesel.

Maybe we could all take a break before rushing over to the computer and sending a derogatory letter to the editor berating some people. Perhaps we could take a break before quickly criticizing a struggling and weary elected official. Maybe we could take a break before we blow off some steam on a mailing list and metaphorically point fingers at a neighbor.

What does it mean to be human? In this city, that means living in community, being informed and engaged, and expressing our diverse perspectives. It also means listening deeply, valuing dissenting opinions, learning to compromise, respecting boundaries and caring for the common good.

I believe in this community. I believe we can do better than reflect the divisions that have left huge cracks in towns and villages across the country. I believe in our ability to unite with a common goal and a shared struggle to solve the problems we face.

What does it mean to be human? Maybe in Northampton that means learning to take a break and never allow anyone to be humiliated around you.

The Rev. Dr Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is Associate Pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.



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