Standing in the shadows of downtown Manhattan, I see a city mustering the courage to face another day. Its a short while after 9/11, and the scars that redefined the NYC’s existence are palpable. The early morning cabs and buses are greeted by flower delivery trucks and slow motion service workers making their way to serve others. Everyone seems weary, but determined to move.
In moments the chaos of the day erupts. Pedestrians stream out of the subways and up from Soho, down from the Upper Westside and pouring off the LIRR from Hempstead. Busy people are all over. In the midst of it all I see a man with a ragged coat and grime-covered hands resting his backside down upon a bucket at the corner. He moves slowly, uncovering dirty fingernails and greasy fingerprints. Everyone thinks about fingerprints now.
Through the day, I return to this corner and watch this man. His plastic cup is jostled and pulled, his sign gets floppy from the wind blowing up the street cavern. He stays though, determined if not dignified, in the face of all the hustle and bustle of the city.
In these times when everyone is scurrying, it seems important to me to maintain a certain kind of disruptive dignity. These are times of decreasing civil rights and lessening personal freedoms. So many people seem to be crying Henny Penny, proclaiming end times, or amping up the struggle against what they see as loss. Loss of familiarity, loss of innocence, loss of justice. In different times, I was one of those people, but now, no more.
When its fashionable to loose composure or act incapable, its important to maintain our sense of bearing. I have lived much of my life in an unsettled way, struggling through personal challenges and working to maintain my professional livelihood. Its not been easy. Recently, I’ve had to lean into my network to ask of friends for their connections or possibilities. In the face of that, a few people have responded that I mustn’t behave in a desperate way, that desperation reeks of failure, and nobody wants to be around desperation or failure.
Standing downtown that day more than a decade ago, I watched that man maintain his dignity for hours, in spite of being rejected, spat upon, and ignored for 9/10s of his day. When he was done though, he cleaned up his area and walked away. Never once did he cry, scream, or apparently suffer. I’m not trying to romanticize him, either, but to acknowledge the reflection I see in him now.
That quiet dignity can be really uncomfortable for others to observe. In my own life, people around me have tried to jostle me towards fearfulness, reminding me of my own limitations and striving to push me towards radical steps. Learning this lesson about disruptive dignity has done me a lot of good though, as I’m learning to lean towards the discomfort and simply be with it.
This lesson is mine, and will be for the rest of my life. As my internal fires die down, I’ve found that I don’t need to be larger than life or stand on top any mountain in order to change the world. Today, I’ve seen that there is a very disruptive factor in maintaining my dignity in the face of disruptions, both on a micro level and grandiose scale. So here’s to disruptive dignity, and learning.