It was MLK Day last year when it occurred to me to write this. A sense of inequality weighed heavily all about me — abstract in the news cycle and data points, concrete in the man loitering in front of Washington D.C.’s Union Station with a cup of loose change held out invisibly to passers-by.
Ten months and one presidential campaign season later, it still weighs on me, but not because of the results of the election itself. Regardless of who is about to be sworn into the White House this week, inequality remains a symbol of our national guilt. It is the ghost haunting America’s unrealized dreams and clouding our idealistic memories, the never-ending political talking point, the widening rift threatening to tear society apart.
Or so we lament and complain. The prospect of systemic change feels faint — a distant hope that may or may not ever come to fruition. This feeling of helplessness in turn raises a difficult question: Is the gulf of experience between me and that man at Union Station utterly and entirely impassable? Must we live in worlds bound by our race, class, gender, and creed?
I refuse to say yes to either of those questions, because despite oppression and injustice the world is still full of good things that don’t come with a price tag. One Saturday morning last winter, for example, I went for a walk on a Saturday morning to the Northeast Public Library in Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The air was a pleasant 48 degrees Fahrenheit. It had a soft coolness from the prior day’s rain. Squirrels chased each other through bushes and trees in narrow row house front yards. I stopped on the corner of E and 7th Street to watch half a dozen robins taking baths in a puddle in the gutter. They looked happy to be alive in the cradle of a balmy January day, shaking water off themselves, feathers splayed, oblivious to my stare, just doing what birds do.
In that moment it occurred to me that I could be anyone, homeless or POTUS, and it would not change the joy of watching squirrels and robins at play. The sight would still be the same — a taste of beauty bought without money and without price, a bit of grace for anyone who has eyes to see.
There’s a moment in the film The Revenant when the protagonist, American frontiersman Hugh Glass, is traveling with a Native American man, Hikuc. Glass is injured and on the verge of hypothermia, and his companion has been forced out of his homeland. Suddenly Hikuc sticks out his tongue to catch a snowflake, grinning; then Glass does too. The contrasts of the sick and the healthy, the conquering European and displaced native, fade into their common humanity as they enjoy the same simple sensation together.
It makes me wonder. If we literally took life snowflake by snowflake (pardon the cliche phrasing), might we find that we are more equal than unequal? Just as the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, it requires no privilege or status to access the world’s everyday pleasures. All are free to take a deep breath on a cool day or catch a snowflake on their tongue.
The beauty of the pale sunrise inaugurates the same day for each one of us, and the same fiery sunset of purple, orange, and red ushers in the night. When I cross the Potomac River on my daily commute from Virginia to D.C., I remind myself the sky looks the same from the vantage point of a subway car or a sports car. The sun shines on both the peasant’s hut and the ruler’s palace, so let us step outside our homes, however poor and pitiable, or grand and opulent, and look.