Friday, August 1, 2014

A Tale of two Signs: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?

This morning while walking my dog on our normal route I couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition of two very prominently hung signs. The first, one of the now ubiquitous New Orleans "LOVE" signs, has been there for quite some time. It popped up anonymously on my street about 2 blocks away from our house not long after we moved in. The other, an oversized double-sided monster of a sign, also posted anonymously, seemed to pop up overnight. Literally, as the sign must have been posted at a late enough hour that traffic was non-existent on a decently busy block. I thought about a person, waiting until the time was just right - when the street was quiet and still - and then going up on a ladder in the dark - perhaps with assistance - to proclaim this message to all passersby. There was forethought, commitment, and passion at play here as it was not an easy task to undertake. 

The sign was purposefully hung from a sturdy chain on the block across from the dog run I visit every morning. On one side in bold, carefully chosen typeface (4 different fonts?!?) - "ISRAEL: BARBARISM In the Name of "Self Defense" (PAID FOR BY THE U.S. TAXPAYERS)." There was no claim to this message such as, "paid for by the ________ Americans against ___________," or the "Citizens United Against ______________." Not that that would have made it any better but it would at least allow me to better understand the "purpose" - and I use that word lightly - of hanging this sign for the whole world to see. 

Curiously, the reverse side of this sign had a message of its own: "Killing Children. Bulldozing Homes." I thought a lot about this double-sided sign...probably a bit TOO much. But it hit me right in the face and could not be ignored. 

Presumably, the producer of this sign had to call up a company and pay for them to print this jumbo-sized sign. Having produced signage before in my old line of work, I know this is not cheap. They hemmed and hawed about the wording, the size and type of font, and where to use punctuation. They paid for it, waited it to be fabricated, and anxiously awaited the call to let them know their masterpiece was ready to be picked up! But wait! They were so impassioned and riled up by their viewpoint that they couldn't leave the printed side stand alone. No, they had to find an enormous red permanent marker (I assume the use of blood red ink was a conscious choice) and include an addendum on the reverse side: "Killing Children. Bulldozing homes." The words hit like a ton of bricks. 

Because of the way the wind was blowing, I saw this handwritten side first. Immediately I was outraged, "WHO is killing children? WHO is bulldozing homes?". I assumed they were talking about the local government until a big breeze turned the sign around and I could synthesize their message in its entirety. Oh. I see.

I am not pro-Palestine. I am not pro-Israel. I do not react to these signs negatively because of any closely held political beliefs or because I have many friends who are currently living in Israel and dealing with real violence - not the verbal kind - every single day. Every message I see on Facebook, every news story I accidentally catch, every conversation I overhear - regardless of what word comes before the IMPORTANT part of the sentence: "___________ people dying," or "Bombs being dropped on ___________ school," creates a nauseating tightness inside my chest. I have no desire to stay informed about these conflicts because presumably there are reasons why on either side of the issue. There are innocent and guilty parties on each side of the border. And no matter what these articles say - or if the articles are even credible- my opinion will not change: NOBODY deserves to die. 

I listened to a dharma talk once and the message was regarding when and when not to voice your opinion. There are three "tests" that your story should pass before you decide to share it on a larger scale: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? I can't, unfortunately, remember what beautiful yoga teacher shared this with me but apparently (thanks Google!) it stems from the Sufi religion (yep! Islam! Hope that doesn't make you stop reading!) and was codified into a 1835 poem called "The Three Gates" by Beth Day. 

Looking at the LOVE sign first, you'll notice that the message was also - even more so - carefully worded. Presumably the author, who we now believe to be John. H., also thought long and hard about what his signs would say. It's hard to find words - even a single word- that ring true universally. John H. wrote a letter to a Times Picayune writer that explained his motive ("hopes for improving life in NOLA for everyone") and his method - placing the signs strategically in places where violent crimes and homicides took place in 2013. He goes on to say, "Would a Jew, Catholic, Baptist, Buddhist or Muslim get the word equally? It is a lot shorter than GOD SAID THOU SHALL NOT KILL."

And there you have it. Rather than use his signs to make a personal, political, or religious statement, he shaved away all the unnecessary connotations and streamlined his message to one single word. LOVE. A word that is kind, necessary, and unequivocally true. In fact, the only and the highest truth that any of us will ever know. 

In sharp...painfully sharp contrast, this other sign has exactly the opposite intent and effect. This is not a mundane political sign that says, "vote for So and SO," or "No Tall Buildings in the Historic District!". No, those signs are at least rally cries. People who oppose them see them and are pissed off but people who agree with them at least get a sense of community and pride! They also may be necessary, say if an election is coming up or the community board is voting on a proposed development project and attendees are needed to voice their opinion. They also aren't inherently unkind. "Vote for my guy" is a much different message than, "don't vote for THAT asshole." 

The anti-Israel sign however, produces no such good feelings. For anyone. If you hate Israel you see this sign and it revs you up. Reignites the fire of hatred within you. You can almost taste blood in your mouth when reading the words. If you are Israeli, or pro-Israel, you read these words and not only do you feel a similar anger and call to violence, but also profoundly sad. One of your neighbors has brashly posted a message of hatred intended to attack and slander you and your people. Even someone who cares more about the war on the Real Housewives of NY reunion than the war in the Middle East can't help but feel negative emotions when confronted with the words, "Killing Children, Bulldozing Homes." The words are not kind. And if they are "true" they are equally true on both sides of the battle.

These words are also anonymous. They do not invite rebuttal or conversation. They do not point the readers to an action-focused group they can join should they agree, or disagree. They are not directly tied to an election. In effect, these words serve absolutely no purpose other than to provoke feelings of hatred and/or sadness in all those who come into contact with them. In short, they are completely UNNECESSARY. 

On a smaller scale, we are all guilty of being hasty with our words. We gossip, we name-call, we judge and dismiss. Thinking about these signs has reminded me of what Don Miguel Ruiz advises us all in the first of the Four Agreements: "Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love."

My husband asked me, "so you wanna go take the sign down?" I thought about it, but realized that would not only not change the situation, but would only make us more intimately involved with this sign than I ever wanted to be in the first place. But John H., if you're reading this. I know a place that could use another LOVE sign: Right on the corner of Clouet and Dauphine in the Bywater. Where hopefully a message of LOVE could cancel out this message of hate, perhaps even, encouraging whomever posted it to consider taking it down.