Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ralph Revisited

Ralph Revisited

Vacations give us opportunities to break out of the familiar routines and rhythms that can so dominate our lives, and enjoy less rushed and more relaxed patterns . . . altering just a bit the way we see and approach how we go about our days. We often come back feeling more rested, renewed, and perhaps (at least momentarily) wiser about the need to incorporate some of those more restful patterns into our lives once vacation is over. It's amazing how different things can look with a change in perspective. (The kind of change in perspective that vacations can bring is a topic worth pursuing all on its own).

It was while I was thinking about this (having just returned from a restful, but way too short, vacation) that I found myself in a brief conversation with a friend who had been thinking about what I had shared in a post on this blog back in June (entitled "Epitaphs & Blind Spots") about Ralph Ledbetter. Recalling how I had talked about how the placement of his tombstone seemed to have reflected a deep seated prejudice that even many years after the Civil War was over still excluded him from the circle (if this does not sound familiar to you, you may need to re-read the old post in order for the rest of this to make sense). My friend, however, suggested that perhaps there was another way to look at what had happened (this from the perspective of someone who had grown up in that part of the country).

    • What if, he suggested, the designation of "Slave" on his tombstone was not there to somehow designate him as less worthy than the other Confederate officers buried in that graveyard, but rather to draw attention to the significance and uniqueness of his dedication and sacrifice?
    • What if placing his grave marker outside of the circle was not a matter of excluding him from the circle of others, but to highlight his uniqueness in such a way that his contribution would not be lost sight of. Perhaps the placement was so that the attention of others would be drawn to it?
    • What if it was not a matter of exclusion, but one of setting apart in honor?
The thought had never occurred to me. Whichever of these two scenarios you may find the more persuasive, what struck me was how simply changing the perspective from which this was seen could have such a powerful impact on how it was understood.

Of course, neither one of us happen to know any of the other details of Ralph Ledbetter's story (although now I am more curious than ever), and both of us realize that we made certain assumptions based on our own experiences and understandings of the south and what we saw in this graveyard. But perhaps just as important as determining which interpretation of the data is closer to the truth (perhaps even more important) is the recognition of how much the assumptions we brought with us influenced and shaped the way we understood what we were seeing.

(This, by the way, in case you were wondering, was a friendly conversation), but also one which left me with a few things too ponder further . . . things like:

  • The Power of Location. The realization that "where" we are (in much more than a geographical sense) impacts what we see and how we understand. This is not a new or original idea, but my awareness of it was heightened just a little bit more.

  • The Sacrifice of Understanding. I wonder to what extent many of our attempts to establish who is right (even when the points we are trying to make, defend or promote are good ones) are carried out at the expense of genuinely understanding those who see things differently than we do?

  • The Relational Implications. Perhaps one of the least appreciated reasons that relationships between people (and groups of people as small as families and as large as countries) remain tense, conflicted, hostile or broken may have far less to do with failing to recognize who is right and who is wrong, and far more to do with failures in the areas of graciousness and humility. It is here that our blind spots can be the largest, and our resistance to recognizing the significance of our location (or even admitting that we have one) so deeply ingrained. And yet, when we consider the kind of healing that could happen if we were willing to live in a greater awareness of our own agendas or presuppositions (which might very well be either unconscious, untested, or both) and a willingness to genuinely consider how things might look from the perspectives of others, our own resistance to do this is all the more bewildering. It brings to mind Jesus' lament, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed together your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! [Luke 13:34 (NIV)]

    Perhaps one way to more fully understand Ralph Ledbetter's story and it's implications would begin with the realization that there are many more stories that need to be heard. Not just the stories of those who knew Ralph, or those who decided on the inscription and the placement of the marker, but also the countless other stories that surrounded his and help to shape the various ways we see and understand. Of course this does not ensure that we will always agree, or that we may not still need to take strong stands for what we believe to be true. But perhaps what is does mean is that, while it may not be entirely possible to fully identify all of our presuppositions or the ways they have shaped or influenced our perceptions, our willingness to at least be aware of their significance might go a long way towards making us more gracious and humble listeners. And perhaps in the process, it might lead us toward greater understanding and healing.

    Perhaps the implications of Ralph's story, and our attempts to make sense of it, stretch further that I, or for that matter he, ever would have guessed!

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