I love a good blues tune. Part of my affection is driven by the melodies, but it’s the lyrics that get me. Somehow, those haunting, mournful songs manage to capture the immense span of the human condition in tiny, concise sound bites.
For example, one of my favorite blues songs is “We’re in the Same Boat, Brother,”sung by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. In one simple refrain, Lead Belly calls out the human tendency to judge and the long-term dangers of doing so:
“We’re in the same boat, brother. And if you shake one end, you’re gonna rock the other.”
We see this song play out in our own lives every day. For example, last Wednesday I was riding in my “boat”: the New York City subway. As usual, everyone was in their own mental space, listening to their music, watching their phone, eyeing their neighbors. We were all locked into seeing the world as divided between “me” and “them.”
Right before my stop, a musician got on, launching into his festive Mariachi music. People began tapping their feet, nodding, even looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, there was no “me” and “them.” The entire car had become “we.”
For a fleeting moment, we were one, united in enjoying this lively music. Then the train stopped; the musician got off, and we all closed back into ourselves, reverting to “me” and “them.”
It’s a sad truth that as human beings, we tend to default to “me” and “them.” But we hold the power to change our lens. No matter what boat you find yourself in, whether it’s a New York City subway, a dysfunctional family unit, a difficult work environment, or a massive planet with millions of diverse faces, adopting a more open, compassionate, and universal perspective is possible. It’s all about finding common ground.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained it this way: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This week, I challenge you to look around your boat. How many times do you find yourself seeing your world through the “me” and “them” lens? Think about the person or people against whom you are drawing a boundary, and ask yourself, “What do we share in common? What pain do we both face?”
Here’s another way to approach it: when you read news, make the person in the story resemble you—your race, your ethnicity, your nationality, your religion. Does this change how you feel? If the story is about an unfamiliar place, change the location to your home and your family. Does that alter your perspective?
It is not an overstatement to say that the future of this planet—our future--is dependent upon our individual and collective decisions. We are a hyper-connected society in which one isolated disruption can quickly ripple through the whole. Just consider the current Coronavirus outbreak—a world health crisis that mandates a collective global effort.
We can no longer afford to live in our artificially manufactured separation. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not right. As the scripture teaches: “Love each other like brothers and sisters. Give each other more honor than you want for yourselves . . . Share with God's people who need help. Bring strangers in need into your homes” (Romans 10:12, 13).
The best teachers of this are the next generation. Watch small children. They don’t see “me” and “them.” They see past color, age, ethnicity, and gender. They see “we.” That’s the greatest legacy we can leave our children—a world that truly is as they see it.
This week, remember the children. Look around your world and find common ground you did not see before. Notice hidden connections. Discover mutual understandings. We’re in the same boat, brother. Now, let’s row it together.
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