Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: What does it mean to be human in Northampton?

Published: 8/20/2021 5:00:02 PM

I have lived in and loved Northampton since 1980. During my years here, I have served on many boards, volunteered for numerous organizations, birthed my son in our local hospital, sent him to the public schools, and been engaged in several communities of faith. I have participated in hundreds of political campaigns, marches, vigils, walks, rallies, die-ins, and teach-ins. I live near downtown Northampton, and walk into our city center almost daily.

I love Northampton and have for decades, but I am discouraged about the tone of negativity and hyper-criticism that seems to be present in our civic discourse lately. It seems that divisions among us have opened into wide chasms.

I am concerned about the tone of public discourse, the accusations in letters to the editor in this paper, the derogatory comments at City Council meetings, the hurtful messages in the various list serves I receive, and the finger-pointing, blaming and shaming that seem to occur more frequently in the “public square.”

Maybe I am being naïve or looking back over time with selective memory, but I do not remember the tone of public discourse being so negative and angry during all my years in Northampton. This new reality makes me very sad and I am unsure what to do, or how to help.

Searching for some words of comfort and inspiration, I took a favorite book of mine off my shelf and began to leaf through it. The book, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” includes over 100 short essays from esteemed thinkers from around the world reflecting on that one question. The offerings are wildly diverse in nature, the writing is elegant and spare, and the book oozes with wisdom from famous authors, faith leaders, and public figures including the Dalai Lama, Oscar Arias, Jimmy Carter, Naomi Shihab Nye, James Earl Jones, Joanna Macy, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As I looked through my copy of the book, seeing the many notations, underlinings, and question marks I had inserted during previous readings, I found a sentence I had marked that jumped out at me. Ruth Slickman wrote, “How to be truly human? At sixty-nine I am still trying to learn.” I can relate — I am 69 and I am also still trying to learn.

What the book stresses in essay after essay is that being human requires both patience and practice. Robert Aitken writes, “To be human is to learn what it is to be human and then to practice it. It is to stand fast in the face of inhumanity ... It is to stand fast and to conspire with others in their human practice.”

Looking through the book and rereading some of the beautifully crafted essays, I found that I wish that the tone of our discourse in Northampton would acknowledge the reality that we are all works in progress, we are all practicing being human, trying, failing, and trying again. I wish we could remember that each one of us makes mistakes. The point is not to prove you are right, but to stay connected.

“To be human is not always to succeed, but it is always to learn,” David Krieger writes in his essay. Trying, failing, being humble, and learning are themes woven throughout the book, as is the concept of reverence for life, and the call to be both tender and forgiving.

I know that I am a person with strong opinions, powerful feelings, and an unbecoming tendency to declare what is right or wrong. But I am also a person who, at 69, is increasingly aware of how life is fleeting and fragile, and I have come to realize that I would rather forfeit the feeling that I am right than lose my connection to community.

I have engaged in my share of shrill arguments and holier-than-thou mini-lectures with those I think are misguided. But time is doing what time does well — buffing off some of my sharp edges, heightening my sense of gratitude, and helping me recognize and remember that we are all partially right and definitely flawed.

My self-righteousness in years past led to damaged relationships, and living harmoniously in community is all about relationships. I am aware that short-term victories born of criticism and anger can lead to long-term consequences that are unwanted and painful.

On my desk at home I have a folded index card with these words on it, “Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.” Thank you, Elie Wiesel.

Maybe we could all pause before we rush to the computer and send off a derogatory letter to the editor that chides certain individuals. Maybe we could pause before swiftly criticizing an elected official who is trying hard and bone weary. Maybe we could pause before venting on a list serve and metaphorically pointing a finger at a neighbor.

What does it mean to be human? In this city, it means living in community, being informed and engaged, and voicing our diverse perspectives. It also means listening deeply, valuing differing opinions, learning to compromise, respecting boundaries, and caring for the common good.

I believe in this community. I believe that we can do better than mirror the divisions that have left huge fissures in cities and towns across the country. I believe in our ability to pull together with common purpose and shared struggle to solve the problems we face.

What does it mean to be human? Maybe in Northampton it means learning to pause, and never allowing anyone to be humiliated in your presence.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

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