Monday, June 21, 2010

The Line

I would imagine that if you asked the next 50 people that you encounter, 49 of them, if they answered seriously, would say that, all things being equal, they expected to go to heaven when they died. I have always thought that most people are good. My days of hitchhiking confirmed that belief, and my experiences at work, and in my community have done nothing to change that opinion. But what if we are wrong? What if the creator expects more us?

Less scrambling for wealth and more helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Less trumpeting ways in which we are better than others and more recognition that the birth lottery was good to us, how can we progress the lives of those not so lucky. Less finding reasons to distrust, isolate and kill, more searching for ways to bridge our differences; more love, less hate.

What if, at the end of the day, it is simply a matter of how many we've helped, not how much we've earned?

The Line

The rain pelted the windshield making visibility very limited. There was no place to pull over, so the driver of the car continued on, slowly. At a blind curve, two headlights lit up the night, temporarily turning the darkness into light. The collision occurred almost simultaneously as the driver's eyes recovered from the sudden light allowing him no time to react. The car teetered momentarily at the cliff's edge, then slid down the ravine into the shallow water below. Funny, the man thought, no pain.

The line stretched on in front of me to a point where I could still make out the colors of clothes but not the faces of their wearers. There was little chatter around me but it all sounded forced like the interactions one hears in an elevator. I chose to remain silent, only nodding my head at the woman in front of me when she turned around and smiled the smile one sees in line at the grocery store. Or at a funeral.

Gradually, we shuffled forward. We didn't seem to be moving very quickly yet I didn't sense the impatience one usually feels from a group stuck in a slowly moving, long line. I wondered if they all felt as I did, a feeling that the time would come, soon enough, when I would find myself at the front of the line. I heard a short, suppressed laugh in the distance behind me. It was a laugh that seemed to have been stopped short, not just by its owner but by the group as a whole, as if to remind everyone in line that this was not the place for laughter.

After a while, more than minutes but less than hours, I was surprised to find that I had a folder tucked under my arm. I glanced around me and noticed that everyone else also carried a similar folder. No one had opened their package and I followed suit.

More time passed and I was beginning to hear the words being spoken at the front of the line. Well, not really actual words, but voices. Soon I realized that every other voice seemed to be of the same pitch and eventually I understood that each conversation featured the voice of someone in line, like me, and the response from the person who was waiting for us. All of the conversations were brief.

For the second time since I had found myself in line, I was surprised. This time, my surprise was the result of realizing that there were two additional lines leading away from the front of the line in which I waited. How could I have missed them before? One moved very slowly and was extremely crowded. It disappeared into the distance and I got the sense that it did not end just out of sight. The second line was sparsely populated and the people moving within it were free to stride or trot or walk casually as they felt. I noticed that all those around me were also aware of the two lines. I imagined that they wished as I did, to be allowed to join those in that second line.

When I turned my attention back towards the front of my line, I could now clearly see the people as they approached the man whose voice I first detected. He was tall and lean, clothed in loose garb. There was nothing special about his clothes but he obviously commanded the attention of each person who approached him. As each individual personal drama played out, the tall man nodded, each person opened their folder, glanced at the words inside then handed the folder to the man. I heard each person say something, heard his voice respond, then watched as the majority of them walked off to the first, much longer line.

I was getting close now. I should have been close enough to hear the words but for some reason I could not. Yet I could tell that most of the conversations were not ending in the manner that was anticipated. While there was no anger being expressed, there was clearly disappointment of the kind that comes when an outcome is exactly opposite of expectation.

Then, despite the fact that I felt that I had been in line for quite a while, I was suddenly at the front of the line. It reminded me of the conversations that I had had with my grandparents when I was a young adult and they in the twilight of their lives. Time can seem interminable, they all said, yet the your life can seem so short, and the time of inevitable death can seem so sudden.

I looked up at the man at the front of the line. He was taller than I had calculated while I was standing in line. But it wasn't his height that was his most striking feature. It was his eyes. They were direct, compassionate, and sad. I had seen similar expressions during conversations where tragic news was being relayed. But his sadness went beyond the sadness that comes from just bringing bad news; his sadness seemed to reflect a responsibility in that he had provided the way to avoid this bad news but it had been ignored. He was obviously reading judgements yet these judgements were far from the judicial impartiality that we expect in our courts. He was visibly saddened by the decisions he was rendering.

I opened my folder and found one piece of paper with a sentence in very large print. It said, YOU MAY ASK ONE QUESTION. Below that line were other words in a language that I did not understand but clearly conveyed something to the man.

"How do you earn the right to take the second line?", I asked.

"You made your choice of which line you would walk every day of your life. You earned time on Line Two every time you performed an act of kindness, doubly so when done for someone you didn't know or who was different from yourself. You earned time on Line Two when your life reflected the spirit of your beliefs, when you were nice when it was hard to be nice, and when you defended someone being treated unjustly. You earned time on Line Two when you used the abilities that you were born with to help those less fortunate than yourself."

"You earned time on Line One when you made choices to benefit yourself regardless of its effect on others. You earned time on Line One when you used your religion to define who to love and who to hate. And you earned time on Line One when you did nothing even though you knew what was right but deferred action to someone else. You earned time on Line One when you used the abilities that you were born with to help only yourself."

"I told you how to live, did you not listen? So many men carrying the message of love, did you not heed them? So much suffering to help ease, did you not see it?"

I reflected on my life in an attempt to calculate which line I had earned through my actions and inactions. I glanced up at the man at the front of the line and moved towards the line he indicated.

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