Several of my friends in long-term recovery have harrowing stories about hitting bottom.
They lost a job or a spouse. A DWI landed them in jail. Their children, their parents, and their friends wouldn’t speak to them anymore. An overdose or liver disease nearly killed them. Their life had become so unbearable that they had to find another way or resign themselves to an early death.
Some talk about having had a moment of clarity.
For instance, Bill (not his real name) drank to cope. Homeless, he usually slept in a local park haunted by other low-bottom alcoholics.
Physically wrecked and emotionally wasted, Bill started each day by quickly downing a pint of Thunderbird. He had learned to hold back a bottle of the cheap wine each night. That first drink would settle his tremors and quiet his nausea enough to start panhandling for the rest of the day’s alcohol.
On one of those mornings Bill had his usual first thought: “I feel miserable. I need a drink.” But then he heard, “It’s the drinking that makes you miserable.” From that moment on, he could never see things the same way again. He had had a moment of clarity.
Don’t misunderstand me. This epiphany did not translate into an instantaneous transformation of Bill’s life. Initially it just ruined his drinking. But eventually, he checked himself into rehab. Seriously worked his twelve-step program. Faced the damage he had caused to others and to himself and actively made amends.
Experiencing a moment of clarity is like having scales fall from your eyes. What’s been hidden or what we’ve refused to see comes into view.
Strictly speaking, nothing really changes at first. You don’t change. The damage you’ve been causing—to others and to yourself—hasn’t been mended. But now that you’ve seen how things really are, business as usual becomes increasingly hard to accept.
In other words, with a moment of clarity comes the challenge to learn to tread the earth in a radically different way. Tentatively and gradually at first. With greater confidence over time. Always imperfectly.
I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he asked the obviously-blind Bartimaeus what he wanted Jesus to do for him. I mean, really. The guy couldn’t see. He wanted his vision restored, right? (Mark 10:46-52)
I think Jesus was saying something like this. “Sure, I can make you see. But you’re going to get more than you bargained for. Once your eyes are really opened you won’t be able to see yourself, other people, or your own effect on this world the same way ever again.”
That is, Jesus is about doing more than healing physical eyes. He’s here to give us life-transforming moments of clarity.
For me, one of those moments came when I heard about “the talk” that Black parents feel compelled to give to their children. It goes like this:
“If you are stopped by the police: Always answer ‘yes sir, no sir’; never talk back; don’t make any sudden movements; don’t put your hands in your pockets; obey all commands; if you think you are falsely accused, save it for the police station. I would rather pick you up at the station than the morgue.” (The Talk: Race in America)
When I heard this, I recognized that I never even considered giving such a talk to my sons and daughter. And that’s because I didn’t have to. We’re white.
When I was younger, some of my friends used to say, “I don’t see color.” While I never actually believed what they said, I now think of that phrase as an expression of a privileged status.
You see, I don’t ever have to worry about the color of my skin precisely because I’m white. The mere color of my skin will not evoke suspicion. It won’t get me followed in a department store. My white skin won’t lead to my being pulled over by the police if he perceives that I’m in the wrong neighborhood.
Recently a friend of mine brought up that old phrase. He told me that he loves his beautiful black skin. He won’t feel diminished if I don’t see it as beautiful. He’s used to that response from white people like me. But he implied that he would be delighted—especially for me personally and for our society as a whole—if I could see its beauty.
Here’s what I heard him saying. Racism is real. Sometimes it’s overt and easily recognized. There are unapologetic bigots and violent white supremacists. But racism is frequently more subtle than that. And we will only learn about that kind of racism by seeing color.
To see color in this way is to honor and to be educated by the life experiences of Black, Latinx, Native, and Asian people. And it’s to begin to see the part that my whiteness plays in their stories.
Like I said, I’ve had a moment of clarity. I see color. Many of us do. And we cannot un-see it.
We now know that damage has been done. It is still being done. And we want to do better. We want to be better.
As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I believe that we can overcome racism. But first we have to see color.