Wednesday, January 23, 2019

There is always more to every story

       You’ve probably seen something in the media about this - a high school boy and an elderly Native American man facing each other on the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The incident has been on the news everywhere – national and local radio/ tv, print media, and of course, all over the internet. Several things in the photo propelled the interest: the obvious culture gap visible in the boy’s Make America Great Again cap and the Indian’s drum, the young white and elderly brown face, the countenance on each one as their faces almost touch, all this against a backdrop of boys chanting something. 
       I was one of the countless people whose attention was captured by the incident. For me, it was not just the apparent social justice conflict, but the boy was from a Catholic high school just a few miles down the road from where we live.  As a one-time professional photographer, I wondered about the story and the larger context not pictured. (By the very nature of a camera, every picture has to create a frame that necessarily excludes some part of the reality.) 
       One interpretation that rapidly spread over the internet was that the teen was a bigot, the conclusion based on the MAGA cap, the look on his face, the chants from other boys in the crowd, and the contrast presented by the young white man and elderly brown man. 
       Gradually, with interviews and more videos, additional information and context emerged. Depending upon the source, sometimes the teen was just a teenager caught in a situation beyond his experience, sometimes a biased white male, sometimes a misunderstood young man trying to help dampen a potential racial fire. The Indian elder, in some views, was trying to defuse the situation, in others he was pushing this young boy who was not respecting the Native American culture. In some narratives, there was a 3rd group that actually started the chaos by chanting taunts at the young white high schoolers. Added to all this are reports that nefarious groups used the story as propaganda to increase division and chaos in society. 
       At this writing, the real truth is buried in a jumble of fact, fiction, and interpretation, but one thing is very clear: in a divisive, antagonistic age of finger-pointing and quick condemnation like ours, we must not assume each story we read is true. No story is the end of the story. Here are some cautions I find in this entire episode:
1.      Be wary of news “alerts” or viral pieces that are so prolific on cable and the internet. What the reporter or sender does NOT say may be even more significant that what was actually reported. For e.g., long-established news sources are still grappling with a recent Buzzfeed report involving the current administration. No other news outlet could verify the story, but many of them repeated it over and over, though normally with a caveat: “We have not yet corroborated this story, but….” Each repetition inevitably added some kind of credence to the report.
Our own life situations have their own version of this. “So and so said……..” or “Did you know that…..” Dare we honestly ask ourselves, as we pass on the latest news, that it may just be gossip? Do we ever bother to qualify our “news” with, “I don’t know this for sure, but….”  We don’t call this kind of conversation “fake news,” but I think it may be a close relative!
2.      Never judge by 1st appearances; there is always something we don’t know. This applies not only to news flashes and possible gossip, but to personal interactions. Someone bumps me on the street. Was it carelessness? Intentional?  Was the person bumped and couldn’t avoid running into me? Can I give the person benefit of the doubt?
3.      Temper the response to someone almost “taking your head off” over a small mistake. Why was the person so on edge? Did he/she over react because they were already on emotional overload and this pushed them over the tipping point? Maybe they were really upset with someone else entirely. Maybe they were upset with themselves. Again, how do we judge the other?

        The story of the teenager and the Native American elder has stumbled through many interpretations, and the full truth is still being uncovered. The same holds true re political stories and daily gossip. These are areas of our lives where acceptance tempered with caution can help prevent mistaken judgments and pain . There is always more to every story!

                           Sr. Colleen Winston, OSB


  1. SISTER COLLEEN: I have not seen the photo but gained a lot from your discussion.
    Lots to report. Will write soon.
    Warm regards, Adriana

  2. Thank you very much for making me stop and think. Your reflections are helpful.

  3. Dear Sister thank for this truth -- as Jesus told us, judge that ye be not judged. Media photos are messages, sometimes good, often bad. Even in our holy scriptures we have information that we must resist. The First Nations of the Americas were a sacrifice to the establishment of the world we have today, witness how few survived, and how little of the wealth of the continent their children have received. It is good always to remember this. Little boy or little girl, there is reparation through love. We still need to be more married together, to love one another more, to share our values more. How little we know! How many American languages can we speak? Mary a First Nation mother surely the best truth is there.

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  5. your expertise and compassion are very helpful for me as i care deeply for all parties in this situation. thank you. i am grateful for your willingness to speak your truth. i am comforted.

  6. Amen...Sr Coleen, great reflection to ponder

  7. Thank you, Sr. Colleen. Much love.