A biker on a loud Harley drove by the laundromat. It was one of those bikes with the upswept handlebars. The biker's feet were planted forward of his seat. And he wore black, WWII German-style helmet on, sunglasses and a graying goatee. He roared by me, neither looking left nor right. The king of the parking lot.
I was loading my clothes in the washer when a timid older woman lugging two baskets of laundry asked, "Is that your car?" I had parked in front of the laundromat to make unloading easier. I had intended to move the car after I had started the wash. "Oh, do you want to park there?" She nodded. "I'll move it right away." And did.
Yesterday at the library, I was thumbing through a new biography of Mohandas Gandhi, India's great leader and the architect of non-violent resistance, by Ramachandra Guha, called "Gandi Before India." The book covered Gandhi's early life, including his years as a barrister in South Africa and his time as an advocate of vegetarianism in Britain. I had not realized that groups of English and Indians were committed to the ideas of renunciation of bodily comforts. They refused to eat meat or drink alcohol. They avoided sex, at least the promiscuous kind. One Englishman even decided to live on pennies a day, sold his home and moved into a one-room flat above a music store.
While the cultural impetus for each person's choice of renunciation might have been different, the impression was the same: giving up one's comforts was beneficial -- whether to expand one's consciousness, to emulate Christ, get closer to God or whatever.
I realized that I was not likely to ever be a renouncer. I like my comforts, my alone time, my popcorn and my chai tea. I enjoy a run punch and a Jameson & ginger. I love my wife's home-cooked meals and the softness of her body next to mine. And holding her hand. And her kisses!
But the biker made me think about renunciation in another way. When I saw him, I was reminded of how we devalue the kindness and the disruption of our comfort that the older lady's request meant for me. I had to make a tiny break in my plan. I had to bend my will to that of another. I had to reject the option of a cruel word or a brushoff. Aren't these renunciation too? To choose the path of kindness over the path of cruelty, of self over selfishness, or disruption over comfort?
I often hear about people complaining about political correctness. How certain terms and words are no longer considered appropriate in normal conversation. The N-word (for blacks), the B-word (for women) and the R-word (for the mentally disabled) are all considered to be harmful to their targets, and have been discouraged in polite speech. This leads, naturally to a sense of resentment on the part of those who enjoy using those words. They feel aggrieved and persecuted about having limits placed on their free speech. They thrill when others, whether on the radio or in chat rooms or in private conversation, get away with using these forbidden words.
But if words can hurt others, shouldn't we choose to renounce their use? If words shackle certain groups from success, shouldn't be abstain from their use? The great renouncers of yesterday sought to purify themselves by cleansing themselves of meat, sex and alcohol. Maybe this kind of renunciation still has value. But there is undoubtedly value in renouncing the use of language and terms that destroy esteem, that enforce evil cultural norms and that brand individuals and groups as unworthy.
Today, renounce a bit of your unneeded freedom of expression. For God's sakes, if not your own.