The premise is this: On the island of Berk, Vikings live under constant threat of dragon raids. They’ve spent generations learning dragon ways so they could resist and defeat them, and there’s no higher mark of honor than to have killed a dragon in the public square. Hiccup, resident klutz and the most un-Viking of Vikings, is also the unfortunate son of Stoik, the village hero and head honcho. They don’t understand each other and rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, except that they both wish Hiccup could be a brawny dragon-killer, like every other male (and several females) in town. Hiccup gets an opportunity to win the villagers’ and his father’s respect by accidentally killing a rare dragon during a night raid. This gives him enough street cred for his father to agree to let him go to dragon-killing school, while unbeknownst to the entire village, Hiccup hasn’t killed the dragon. Instead he takes the opportunity to study the wounded creature, who he names Toothless, gaining his trust and discovering that dragon and human have more in common than he’d been taught to believe. An unlikely friendship is formed. (I should write for IMDB, seriously…)
One night, after school is over, Hiccup goes to the library to review a…dragon killing handbook, for lack of a better description. In it is outlined everything the Vikings have managed to learn about dragons—the different types, their anatomy and physiology, their strengths and weaknesses, their motivations, etc. By now, Hiccup and Toothless are friends and have learned a lot about each other and you can see how his personal relationship with this specific dragon makes reading this book an eye-opening and uncomfortable experience for him. While reading a general description of dragons, he comes across the phrase, “A dragon will always go for the kill.” That sentence was the basis for the Viking School’s “kill, or be killed” mantra. Hiccup has a flashback to his new friend; to the moment when Toothless lay vulnerable in the woods—bound, injured, and unable to defend himself against whatever Hiccup chose to do to him. Hiccup’s empathy for the defenseless creature won’t let him kill him. Instead, he cuts him free. While Hiccup is freeing him, Toothless’ face registers surprise and cunning, seeing his opportunity to kill the idiot human cutting the ropes that tie him. Once free, he lashes out at Hiccup, pinning him to a rock. Their eyes meet, and they finally see each other. They both realize that neither human nor dragon instinct is to kill, but simply to defend against attack. In the other’s eyes, they see no harm, so they can safely put down their defenses and walk away. Back in the school library, Hiccup says, “We’re wrong. Everything we thought we knew about them is wrong.”
I won’t tell you how it all works out, just in case you haven’t seen it and want to, but Hiccup’s revelation in the library really resonated with me, especially in light of what’s been happening in my city this week. I live in St. Louis, and right now, we’re in the national spot light for events that have unfolded over the last 6 days.
On August 9, in the village of Ferguson, Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American male, was shot multiple times by a police officer during an altercation and died on the scene. In the aftermath of the incident, protesters were incited to riot, setting fire to businesses, destroying property, and looting. It’s all we hear about on the radio, it’s all we see on the news and in print media, and it’s pretty much all anybody is talking about around the water cooler.
Reports of how it all happened are conflicting—some say Brown was walking in the middle of the street with a friend, when a twitchy cop insulted him and demanded that he get the f@** on the sidewalk, and grabbed him by the throat. Brown objected to the offense, the cop shot him once, and Brown ran away. The officer gave chase and though Brown stopped and put his hands up, the officer opened fire, shooting him multiple times. Others say Brown was up to no good and was belligerent with the cop when he tried to detain him. He tried to push the officer back into his vehicle and was shot once. He then ran away. When the officer gave chase, Brown reached for the officer’s weapon (clearly intent on harm), and was killed in the struggle over the side arm. The officer acted in self-defense, or the gun was passively discharged in the scuffle—an accidental death from an unfortunate series of bad choices on the part of Brown.
No one disputes that Brown was unarmed. No one disputes that after the shooting, his body was left in the middle of the street for hours, while local law enforcement secured the scene and attempted to control the crowd that gathered. No one disputes the racial tensions in the area, or the bad blood between local law enforcement and the city’s poorer, black contingent. No one disputes that this story is a familiar one, with the majority of Blacks, if not directly affected, “knowing a guy who knows a guy,” who had the very same thing happen to them. No one disputes that most of the damage done over these last 6 days in Ferguson (hell, over the last 300 years in our country) has been done to innocent people. It'll be a while before the real story comes out, and even then, it may never be the whole truth, but where we are now is what counts. On both sides of the fence, basic human dignity has been violated, and people are done.
Since Saturday, I’ve seen things that break my heart. A mother grieving the tragic loss of her son, because a mother's love doesn't ask whether or not a child deserved what he had coming to him. The Quik Trip at Ground Zero burning to the ground, the owners guilty of nothing more than running a business where something tragic happened. Looters slipping through broken windows with items they did not buy, stolen from people who did nothing to deserve the violation. Tear gas being fired into crowds of protestors whose intentions were not to incite riots or to impede traffic, but to speak loudly enough, finally, finally to be heard. Every day, I’ve read posts on social media from friends, family, and concerned citizens, full of sadness, confusion, and fear for our future. Crowds of peaceful protestors and people praying that the madness would stop, questions be answered, and justice served. People keep asking, “What went wrong?” Whose fault is it? What insidious system is to blame and how can we shut it down so this doesn’t happen again?
I say, none of that matters. All that matters is that people are involved. We must start seeing each other as more the same than we are different; each person at his core a divine creation, worthy of dignity, respect and a voice. With our strained racial history, that won’t happen until we're willing to undo everything we thought we knew about the others that we fear. It won’t change until we can look into our enemies’ eyes and see ourselves—that we’re more alike than we are different—to consider that everything you thought you knew about them might be wrong.
For that to happen, we must break through the barriers of fear, distrust, anger, and the bad decisions that are fueled by those feelings, and appeal to each other’s humanity. When a person’s God-given dignity is violated, don’t say, “Why are you mad at me? It wasn’t my fault.” Don’t say, “Well, you/he obviously deserved it and here’s why.” Don’t say, “You’re expressing your feelings about it the wrong way.”
Just say, I’m so very sorry. Tell me how that makes you feel. What can I do to help?
Let’s see what happens when we do that, can we?*******
I’ve started to see some encouraging reports from Ferguson of people reaching out to each other and successfully bridging the gaps between them and it makes my heart glad. I, for one, can use some more of that type of news! If you have an anecdote, a news article link, etc to share that shows the people of St. Louis putting their best sides forward, please leave it in the comments below. I need some hopeful late-night reading.