“If you don’t get out of my way, I’ll shoot you.”
The man looks like ex-military or military wannabe but gone to seed, his crew cut greying and his stomach protruding, hanging loosely over his too-tight belt. He is pushing a shopping cart with a few items in it; a case of soda, a box of donuts, toilet paper. His hands are shaking. I can see that it cost him great effort to work himself up enough to speak those words to me and two of my daughters in Walmart on a rainy Sunday.
Accidentally our eyes make contact, just for a second, and that second is too much for him. His eyes slide to the floor just as his voice drops at the end of his threat.
In a split second, I review my options. I could confront him directly, call him out in front of everyone, make a spectacle of him and his bigotry. I could call 911 and report his threat, possibly getting him in real trouble with the law. I could get a manager to come over and confront him for me. I could whip out my phone and ask him to please repeat himself, so I can get his exact words down. I could cry.
Instead, I laugh.
I don’t know why I do this, except that it just seems so absurd that this pitiful man had to put all that energy into expressing his hatred and fear of a woman and two children he has never seen before. It’s absurd that in this country of freedom of speech and freedom of religion I have to be subjected to comments like this, to open hostility when, truly, I am living proof of so much of what America was built upon. And, honestly? If I, as a clearly practicing and committed Muslim, would have said the same to him, I would be writing this from a jail cell.
I laugh, and he hates it. His back straightens and his shoulders tighten as he walks away.
I laugh, but inside my heart squeezes, just a little bit. For a man so ignorant that he doesn’t understand the irony and evil of his statement. For a man who feels big by threatening a woman and her children in a crowded market. For a man who sits in front of his TV eating frozen dinners every night, alone, filling his stomach as his soul is full of hatred.
My heart squeezes for my children, who have to experience his hate and fear, and the hate and fear of others like him, just because of their faith, or the color of their skin. For my brothers and sisters all over the world who face this, and worse, every single day. For lost innocence, for shattered ideals, for the sometimes hopeless task of trying, day after day, to show people the truth of who we are and what we believe.
But in this is the reminder of the good. Of my landlady and friend, who believes in us and gives us a chance. Of our neighbors who trust us to watch and care for and love their sweet baby when they are working. Of friends who aren’t afraid to stand with us, who make us smile, who feed us buttercream. Of my students, far and wide, who, more often than not, find their ways into my heart and help me be strong. Of my family, the core of my world. Of my teachers, who taught me so much about not just my religion, but of life and how we live it. Of the land that never ceases to bring a sense of wonder to my heart, and always holds me up when I walk upon it. Of my faith, my bedrock and foundation. Of my Lord, who is Most Just, Most Merciful, Ever Living, Who will never die.
Sometimes, to truly experience light, we must first walk through the dark.
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