I snapped this photo several months ago while I was out for a Sunday morning walk:
I posted it on my photography blog the following day, more for the sentiment than for the photographic quality. I didn’t think it would be very controversial.
Boy, was I wrong.
I got double the number of comments I usually get on a blog post. Most were in stark disagreement with the message carved into the tree, citing a volume of examples from history—recent and distant—where hate apparently did win or is winning. The comments were clear: kudos for idealism, but how could I deny that hate was winning right in front of me, every day, in my news feed? I came away with the distinct impression that the majority of my readers thought I was a little soft in the head. Saccharin-sprinkled sweetness and light.
I am not.
I was and still am well aware of the all-too-frequent atrocities in the news, but I was looking from a different angle. I came to the conclusion that if I want to project my positive outlook, I’ll have to be more specific in the future.
Fair enough. Here goes:
If a Muslim woman in a hijab takes a selfie, does anybody care?
Her friends and family do. I don’t, particularly.
Why should I? People take selfies all the time. It’s a global pastime.
But apparently some people do care.
About a month after my controversial blog post, while visiting a resort area in the eastern United States, I saw a number of people stare, point, and whisper to each other about the selfie-taking Muslim woman. I was too far away to hear, but their expressions left little doubt that their remarks were disparaging. I don’t think they were talking about the selfie. More likely it was about the hijab.
In the same fifteen minutes, I witnessed a local man turn and stare at two Sikh men who were enjoying an animated conversation—smiling and laughing. And speaking English. The look on the local’s face showed unmistakable fear, bordering on panic. The Sikhs were wearing turbans! They had beards!
The irrational ridicule and fear made my heart sink. But not permanently.
I know there is intolerance there as well as here. But it wasn’t visible to me on the streets and trails I walked, nor in the restaurants, stores, and museums I went to. What I saw was peaceful coexistence.
Later in the summer I visited Europe for about a month, spending time in Switzerland, Portugal, and England. The contrast to what I’d seen in the U.S. was at first startling, then comforting, and, finally, simply routine.
Just a few examples:
I sat in a restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland, filled with people of every imaginable race, color, and culture, all enjoying themselves. Jews, Muslims, and Mennonites all within close reach and all having a good time. The only people staring were me and my wife because even in the melting pot of New York we’d never seen such a blasé attitude about people from other cultures. It’s not that they were “tolerating” each other—they quite plainly couldn’t care less.
I hiked on trails in the Alps with multicultural crowds at vista points, all patiently waiting for one another to take pictures—selfies or otherwise.
I saw couples in random combinations of race/culture/color and presumably religion walking hand-in-hand on the streets, sitting in parks, riding public transportation, shopping in stores—everywhere—with no one giving them a second look.
I mingled with all kinds of people in museums in rapt fascination, absorbed in works of art from cultures not their own.
I could go on.
I’m not looking at Europe through rose-colored glasses. I know there is intolerance there as well as here. But it wasn’t visible to me on the streets and trails I walked, nor in the restaurants, stores, and museums I went to. What I saw was peaceful coexistence. Live and let live. Smiles.
That gave me hope. The world may be far from perfect, but at least from what I witnessed, hate is suffering a defeat in a major chunk of western Europe.
Thus, I am confident that the tree on the trail was not carved in vain.