City living challenges me. Though I love the museums, theaters, restaurants, concerts, and opera, I abhor trash. I find rudeness hard to excuse. I have learned to fear bicycles. And, although I once was one myself, I increasingly disdain runners.
Not that I would want them not to run, mind you; but I continually shudder when someone flies past me from behind without warning. Walking along the sidewalk early one morning, I stepped to the left, headed for the bakery. At that precise moment a young woman, so light on her feet that I did not hear her approach, collided with me. It could have been bad, a bump strong enough to knock one or both of us over. Fate saved us. She got by and I got by with a mere, “I’m sorry” from each of us.
The same thing could happen in a small town, or a village, or out in the countryside. But packed into a small area, hundreds of thousands of people continually bump into each other, jostling one another, competing for space, needing elbow room, or just trying to carry on daily routines like running, hoping and expecting that nothing and no one will interfere. Cities magnify the dilemmas of human community. Poverty is more visible, stress and anger more audible.
In a strange way one is more dependent on the tolerance and kindness of others in a city. Life would be unbearably brutal if there were not some unspoken pact that hosts of strangers would be, on the whole, nice to each other, anonymously respectful. Exceptions occur. Assaults happen. Tempers flare. Yet for the most part, human inhabitants of cities get along remarkably well.
I grew up in the country, went to school in small towns, have lived in suburbia much of my life. I could believe indefinitely in such places that I am an individual, far from the madding crowd. City life pushes me to recognize that other humans are not others at all. They are parts of me and I of them. There is not a dime’s worth of difference between my DNA and that of the runner who collided with me. We are as grains on the seashore, as stars in the same constellation, as two molecules of water tumbling down a cataract. The poor are parts of me, and the rich equally so. The most basic project tying us all together is survival. In G. K. Chesterton’s words, “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
Those who know that are, in Jesus’ words, not far from the kingdom of God.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016