I’m writing this on a dark evening, December 14, 2012. My heart is sore with compassion for the families of all those who were shot in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.
Whatever anger and madness seeped into the soul of the young murderer, he, too, is in my heart. Adam Lanza killed his mother, shot 20 students, then shot other adults and, finally, himself. His troubled life has ended. The families of so many others have just begun to deal with the trauma.
So I am grateful to Erin Williams, the Twitter friend who alerted me to a project I needed to know about today. She gave me the link to Humans of New York’s story about Mahmoud, whose simple generosity and love is inspiring.
Captivated by Mahmoud and by the title of the Facebook page, I followed up on Humans of New York. There I met Brandon Stranton, the photographer who began his project in 2010. His idea was “to construct a photographic census of New York City.” That was ambitious enough, but the idea grew:
I set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map. I worked for several months with this goal in mind. But somewhere along the way, HONY began to take on a much different character. I started collecting quotes and short stories from the people I met, and began including these snippets alongside the photographs. Taken together, these portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog, which over the past two years has gained hundreds of thousands of followers. With over 300,000 collective followers on Facebook and Tumblr, HONY provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City.
Humans of New York is particularly poignant for me today. I’ve been reading through some of the stories: The Forbidden Ones, The Genius, The Protector, The Poet, The Bird of Paradise. Every story is gritty, real. Williams works his way past the surface and into each soul, treating them with acceptance and compassion.
Where, I wonder, does Mahmoud fit in? On Williams’ Facebook page, I learn that Humans of New York is reporting from Iran. I scroll through the page and find such colour, richness, and humanity. Further down, I return to New York.
What the photographs and brief stories do for me is to bring me squarely into the community of We. On a night when sadness rattles my bones, when I rail at the “why” of those deaths in Connecticut, Humans in New York reminds me of the burden that I, too, bear for the suffering around me – and the credit I earn for the occasional kindnesses that offset my failings.
We cannot inhabit the joy nor the grief of others. We cannot walk through life innocent of the pain we deliberately and unwittingly inflict. But we can keep our hearts open. We can love, laugh, weep.
Erin Williams reminds us of our shared humanity, our successes and our failings. I’m grateful for that.