Jimmy is a short, stout man. He has a huge smile surrounded by full cheeks. The tone of Jimmy’s voice matches that of other adults his age, but his speech is garbled. It is as if something interferes with the words as they make their way from his mouth to our ears. His message is sometimes unclear, but always offered with enthusiasm and affection.
For the last eight decades, Jimmy has disrupted the masculine sensibilities of his coastal community with big embraces of women and men alike. The story is that Jimmy suffers from a developmental disability (although no one used that term until recently), caused by some serious illness as an infant. He did not mature physically or mentally with his peers. Jimmy’s family and the rest of the small coastal community surrounded him with love, support, and fierce loyalty.
Before his retirement, Jimmy was a hard worker, but his developmental problems limited his options. In the ‘60s and ’70s, he worked mostly as a farm hand or laborer. He responded with energy and enthusiasm. Jimmy approached simple, mundane tasks with fascination. What others saw as drudgery, Jimmy saw as opportunity.
My parents lived in the same community as Jimmy. My parents had married at a Baptist church near my mother’s childhood home. After a small reception in the church fellowship hall, they returned to my grandparents’ home to gather their suitcases (stored in separate bedrooms) before leaving for their honeymoon.
In telling the story of what followed, my father implied that he was in a bit of a hurry. He entered the house to pull together a few items for the trip, when my maternal grandfather approached. My grandfather was not always talkative but tended to proceed at length and wander far once he started. He followed my father throughout the house offering marital advice and tips for a successful relationship with my mother.
Anxious to get away, my father remembered only one of my grandfather’s statements: “She’s high strung now!”
I was with my mother one of the first times I saw Jimmy. I had not started school yet. He was working for a farmer near our home. A couple of teenagers were with him when he greeted my mother with a huge smile and said something I could not understand.
Before my mother could respond, the boys mocked Jimmy’s speech. It was one of the few times I ever saw his smile disappear. Unfortunately, those boys had not heard my grandfather’s warning. My mother’s response was swift, fierce, and focused. She educated with a verbal assault that was harsh but packed a simple message.
- Jimmy’s differences are not his choice.
- He’s reminded every day of his differences.
- Cruelty is beneath you.
I have thought of that short encounter often over the last few weeks. Small coastal communities are rife with hypocrisy, just like any other community. The love and support showered on Jimmy is inconsistent with that same community’s history as “a sundown town.”
But we cannot argue with the results of its support for Jimmy. Instead of treating him as a burden or marginalizing him, the community rallied to support him and his family. He contributed with his labor, redistributed his earnings, and spread joy along the way.
Whatever the views or whomever the messenger, considering, embracing, or celebrating differences seems out of fashion. So often we leverage available power to avenge our grievances through cruelty.
- Those with political power legislate or threaten legislation to rouse our worst instincts.
- Those with a social media platform attack real or imagined enemies.
- We shout speakers offstage with angry rhetoric to quiet what we interpret as angry rhetoric.
Creating culture wars for the sake of political advancement may be a successful strategy but comes at great cost to those who live within the divided communities.
Civil liberties, including freedom of speech, privacy and civil rights, evolved and flourished through open debate.
So often our tactics undermine the interests of those they are designed to serve. Politicians in Iowa propose legislation aimed at small, marginalized groups of people while lamenting the exodus of young people from the state, especially the small, rural communities in the state. Maybe their views are principled, but a cost-benefit analysis exposes their substantial expense to the community.
It is not my business to cancel the culture wars, bridge political divides, or impose standards of discourse for the extremes.
But I have talked to hundreds, if not thousands, of prospective jurors throughout the state during the last four decades. People from all walks of life. I have accepted laborers, chief executive officers, schoolteachers, college students, law enforcement officers, ministers, young, old, healthy, disabled, and illiterate.
When forced to question and respond in a respectful, dignified manner, we learn so often that we are less different than we might imagine. We are often willing to overlook our differences when confronted with the reality of our decisions on the lives of those among us who are different.
And that we can differ without cruelty if we are half a mind to try. The investment may pay us back exponentially.
P.S. Jimmy’s last job was running an auto repair shop with his brother’s help. Of course, Jimmy isn’t his real name.