Chapel Hill: Opinion

Lynden Harris: What difference does it make?

The other week an older woman entered a local shop in search of birthday candles. The cashier steered the woman toward a pack of Cheerlites, those classic, multicolored candles that blazed on my children’s birthday cakes throughout their childhoods.

The older woman reached for the rainbow-striped candles, paused, and asked the cashier if there were other choices. “It’s my adult son’s birthday and I’m not sure I should bring these,” the woman explained, fumbling a bit. “Aren’t they homosexual?”

To be honest, I’m not sure how you would assign gender to a candle. And I have given it some thought. But even if you could, what difference would it make?

My father died of pneumonia. I rarely mentioned to anyone that he also had AIDS, because the usual response was, “How did he get it?” At the time, I thought it such an odd question. I still do. What difference does it make?

One of our new projects at Hidden Voices focuses on ending sexual violence. I notice this same questioning impulse when we talk about female victims of sexual violence. “Where was she?” “What was she doing?” “Did she know the person?”

What difference does it make? There are questions whose intent is to connect us more deeply, and there are questions whose purpose is to separate us thoroughly. Asking those questions helps us avoid the intensity of an experience we don’t want to claim.

Who wants to feel the abandonment and childhood physical abuse that shaped a man on death row? It is much easier to pretend he is completely other, to pretend that the raped woman was somehow implicated in her abuse, that the man with AIDS complicit in his illness. Who wants to feel the searing pain of that fragile child or the shock of violation or the inevitable physical deterioration?

We don’t want to feel any of those, because when we do connect at that heart level, we are implicated. We are convicted. The character of a community, like the character of a person, is built over time from countless tiny choices. We are all choice-makers. We have made choices that contributed to a community in which people are thrust behind labels to protect us from having to see ourselves in the clear light of day.

Every time we pretend we aren’t implicated and don’t have a role to play in ending this disconnection, we only kick the can down the road. We will meet it again over the next rise.

A father is dying. A daughter’s life has been wrecked. A brother with PTSD will live out his life inside a prison. The pain lives in our collective body whether we want to feel it or not.

Solutions require a movement toward, not away. When we focus less on trying to distance ourselves from these stories and more on trying to incorporate them into our understanding of who we are, we free ourselves to make choices that can end some of our persistent shadows. To pretend like we aren’t responsible, like we can’t change something, disempowers us. It doesn’t make us less culpable. It only makes us less capable.

In many ways, it’s delightful that this older woman questioned whether or not the candles were gay. Better to fumble in the dark trying to make sense of something we don’t understand than to pretend the thing doesn’t exist. We can hide a candle under a bushel, but at some point it’s going to burn the whole thing up. Might as well remove the basket and let the light do its thing.

February opens with the celebration of Candlemas. When my children were young, they would bring candles to kindergarten to be blessed. I think we are like those candles, and the blessing we are waiting for is something we can only give each other. We offer that blessing by dropping the pretense of separation and acknowledging the truth.

You and I are the same. That is the deepest blessing. Being truly seen, human to human, light to light. And that actually does make a difference.

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voice. She can be reached at