Sunday, April 11, 2010

If Necessary, Use Words

Every day on my way home from work, I pass a used car lot, and that used car lot has a sign that hasn't changed in the year I've lived here. It says, "Go forth and spread the gospel. If necessary, use words."

I've always thought that was a ridiculous sign, mostly because evangelicals who might follow that advice are probably already too full of words and too short on action. But for some reason today, the sign struck me. It made me think of Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream, which says the South is marked by signs with words and signs without words, and while she was talking about state-mandated and social segregation, it still has resonance with me today. Everywhere I turn, I see a message.

Take, for example, the other day. I was sitting at a red light next to a homicidal maniac who decided that, when the left-turn-only arrow turned green, he'd shoot out of the go-straight lane I was in and attempt to careen into the cars veering left on their protected signal. Seconds after the maniac made his attempted suicide, I sat at my own red light, wondering how in heaven's name he hadn't been smashed to pieces. Suddenly, the car behind me sat on his horn and gave me an ugly hand gesture. Beeeeeeep. He wanted me to run my red light, too. His message was, "I'm more important than your safety," "I have somewhere interesting to be," and "You don't matter very much."

I was recently engaged in a service opportunity with a woman I didn't know well. A man walked in after all of the food had been cleaned up and approached me. He'd missed breakfast and the access pass he needed to obtain clothing for the month. "Do you have any shoes?" he asked. It was 95 degrees on the pavement outside. Summer was approaching with fury. "The clothes closet surely does; let me get you the ticket you need to get them," I said, turning to the woman in charge, expecting her to give it to him. "You're LATE," she said sharply at the man with no shoes. To add emphasis, she looked at her watch and blew out a huff of air, rolling her eyes. "I'm sure they don't have anything. Because you're SO LATE. But I GUESS you can look." He was eyeing the 13 loaves of bread she was preparing to toss in the trash can, and she noticed it, and she took them away anyway. "I am important here," she was saying without saying it. Her sign read: "I matter here. I feel powerful when I deny you what you need. I am in charge and you are not."

I thought about my own signs without words. What have I printed there for everyone to see?

No comments: