Vocabulary.

It’s once again the holiday season which means that all the films that insist we get into the holiday spirit will be trotted out on network television. These films are usually well known, comfort food for the eyes and familiar themes that are common to the holidays. Peace. Goodwill. Consumerism. Giving. Retail therapy.

So I had on my television and what comes on but Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town”. I’ve never seen it, so I thought that I’d do a lot worse to not watch it. I’ve always heard it was good anyway. So like a normal American I promptly turned on the DVR and left for my appointment.

Later, I returned to the television and opened up the film. The first surprise was the fact that it opened with a disclaimer. That it was a true story insofar as the lead character, one priest named Father Flanagan. I’ll ask your forgiveness here, because I’ve not memorized the exact order of the scenes.

Ok. So my interest is piqued. What’s next? A gang of boys in a street fight. Ok. Not my cup of tea, but I’ll allow this. Then the scene that set my mind to spinning and my heart to swell.

There was a man on death row. He had a parade of people coming in and out of his prison cell. Head cupped in hands and pacing with an agitated gait, the condemned man soon promised he would confess to the priest, yet on his way. The guards, warden, and all the usual cast of characters who are requisite in a prison scene make their hasty entrances and exits. I’m becoming dizzy with the blurred movements. But the hyperactivity in the cell keeps me engaged.

So the priest at last arrives and a sudden calm fills the room. You can see it happen. I smile. The priest is asked by the condemned, what will he see on the other side? And if he can’t know what’s there, how can he be so unafraid of what’s there? Chalk it up to faith is essentially his answer. The condemned accepts it. Then the prison warden asks the condemned if he is ready to pay his debt to society. The condemned mans face flashes in surprise and righteous anger. He stands toe to toe with the man and demands of him, “… Debt? What debt! The debt I’m owed when society turned its back on a 12 year old kid? When I had nothing and had to scrap to survive, where was that debt then? Huh?!”

He carried on so much more, but I was literally stunned by his performance and his truth. What debt DOES the condemned owe to a society when that society turned its back on him when he was such a small child and had no support? No help? No love? No recourse?

I don’t think that the condemned among us seek an explanation as this man did. But they do seek understanding. Understanding that sometimes, the faults we cause are not of our own making. That sometimes we truly are the product of our surroundings.

Consider this. Someone once said that our capacity for empathy, understanding, acceptance of diversity, the ability to navigate uncertain situations is boiled down to the limits of our language. In other words. If there is a word to describe what we feel, see, experience, we are ok. It’s familiar and not alien to us. But where our language fails us, and we must make assumptions, sometimes to our failing.

I submit that in this mans case it’s possible that society lacked the empathy and understanding he needed. He said that if only one. Just one, had reached out to him as a youth, he likely wouldn’t be in that cell. That if anyone had cared about him in this society that now demands his debt be paid, he likely would not be walking his green mile. It seems to me that most of us could really do well if each of us worked to expand our vocabulary. Stretched our known words to include others so that no one has to feel like our inability to accept the word that describes the “other” will shut them out.

Words like homeless. Poor. Native. Minority. Under-educated. Alone. Neglected. Maybe the adding of these words to our regular vocabulary will allow us to see beyond our own experience and see into theirs.

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