Stay with me. This isn't going to be pleasant.
Sitting in a local eatery, a friend slyly points out to me the outrageous portions ordered by the outrageously proportioned couple at a nearby table. "Don't stare," he warns as I gawk, a rubber necker at a culinary accident. The couple seems absorbed by the act of eating. Assured they are not on to us, he makes a joke, which I will embellish for my own nefarious purposes:
"I saw them park in the handicapped section when I came in. I guess they wanted to avoid inadvertently burning calories on a lengthy walk back to the car."
Yes, they were fat.
Days past, when faced with such a scene, and such commentary, I would mourn silently in my heart. I would hold it all in until I got home late and wet my pillow with tears of shame. But his comment digs into my skull as the obese pair shovel prosperous American amounts of syrupy pancakes into their mouths, literally gaining weight by the second. Live and let live, I want to say. He might not realize how hurtful his "joke" is. Besides, everyone has a right to their opinion, right?
Wrong. This is not days past. I now wear the pants of social consciousness; and socially conscious people can't simply let others live. A year ago, commenting would have been unthinkable. Now it seems inevitable. So there I am in a crowded local eatery, waitresses buzzing about, fellow citizens blithely strapping on the feedbag, a good friend sitting across from me, chewing his cud of bad ideas.
I can't even wait to finish the mouthful of vegetarian omelet I'm working on. "Do you realize the danger in what you just said? Do you hear yourself?"
My voice is rising. Everybody can hear. My friend shifts a little in his seat.
"FAT PEOPLE, in a HANDICAPPED SPOT? Very funny. But let me tell you something my svelte friend. The day we grant handicapped privileges to fat people is the day civilization as we know it crumbles to the ground!"
My friend gives me the "quiet down" signal. I guess he doesn't want people in a crowded local eatery thinking he wants to bring civilization to its knees. Well, I have knees of my own. And I don't get down on them for anyone. Not anymore.
"No I will not quiet down! Handicapped people deserve a certain amount of special consideration because they are involuntarily physically compromised. What's more, we owe them a debt of gratitude for the noble, courageous spirit that strives within them and inspires us all. But FAT PEOPLE? [here I pause to see if I have their attention] They might be physically compromised, but they are fat on the inside as well. And you can't legislate conscience!"
By now his face reveals an intense desire for me to quiet down. But behind his shallow social anxiety I see a deeper fear. He sees the truth in my words.
He realizes that one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse is about to ride.
Called Famine in the ancient texts, the name of this particular harbinger of doom can also be translated: "They who eat as though famine was imminent, and those who coddle them into thinking there is absolutely nothing questionable about burdening one's bones with several hundred pounds of gluttony and sloth." (You can see why the translators shortened it.)
As he nervously glances around the establishment, I finish chewing the mouthful I had taken before speaking up, ready at any moment to launch into the biblical implications of his comment.
"Dude," he says at length, "I think they can hear you."
"I hope they can hear me!"
"Well," he says, brushing a cocktail of eggs, mushrooms, bell peppers and cheese from his left shoulder, then his right, "you shouldn't talk with your mouth full."
He still doesn't know what he is saying, but his comment gives me pause. There I was, so anxious to right the wrongs of this world that I didn't even have the common decency to finish chewing before I spoke. The words coming out of my mouth had been utterly lost in the spray of food that should have been inside my mouth. I try to tell myself that staving off the Apocalypse is important enough to allow for certain moral compromises. But I know I'm wrong. I remember another Horseman--one far more dangerous. The one the ancient texts say represents "the bloody mess caused by those whose exterior doesn't match their interior." (Commonly translated as WAR.)
I take a moment to gather my thoughts, which include: The sun rises on others like it rises on you (in some cases, more so). And: No matter what the exterior reveals, you cannot claim to know the heart of someone you haven't spent a good deal of time with. And finally: he who is without sin, let him cast the first egg. I take a swig of water to make sure the oral cavity is clear of debris that might be ejected during my apology. Then I stand up and say--to the world at large as well as the large individuals at the nearby table--
"Please forgive my friend here. He did not mean to imply that you were handicapped in any way, or that there is something wrong with that if you happen to be handicapped in a way that we can't see from here."
As I sit down, my satisfaction at the stunned silence is muted by the fact that I forgot to apologize for my own actions. For a moment I consider standing again and asking everyone involved to forgive the fact that my message was compromised, that my defense of the overweight couple was tainted with a mouthful of food. But by now I've got a mouth full of rye toast, and I've learned my lesson:
The most important thing is to respect people.