The beloved movie Forrest Gump is special to me for a variety of reasons; the foremost being Forrest’s acceptance and love of the quirky, and often disturbed, people in his life. Out of these, Forrest’s relationship with Bubba ranks as my favorite. Their brotherhood is what I imagine in an ideal world among people who are different from each other. Forrest may have never had an interest in shrimp nor the same family history; and Bubba may have never liked running; but their connection dove deeper than superficial commonalities. They found homes in one another. They found kindness and acceptance in one another, and in the end, Forrest risks his life to save Bubba’s.
Forrest and Bubba’s friendship came to mind randomly while I was reading a book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. In a nutshell, the book follows an inexperienced Harvard Law graduate (Stevenson) as he takes on a death row case in the heart of Alabama around 30 years ago. As the reader follows the trial’s investigation, conviction, and ultimate death sentence against an innocent black man, Stevenson also describes various other unjust, and often fatal, cases against people of color. While there are an unending amount of heartbreaking, quote-worthy moments in the book, the story of Herbert struck me the most:
Herbert’s life was sad as you might expect of an inmate on death row. Even prior to his traumatizing time as an enlisted during Vietnam, Herbert’s mother had died by the time he was three years old and he had struggled with drugs and alcohol before entering military service. By the time he was honorably discharged, Herbert had severe mental health issues which had been ignored for months by his line of command.
Herbert was eventually convicted for murder - a crime he did commit, albeit tragic and accidental. Although Stevenson fought hard to see his sentence reduced, Herbert’s execution was set. As is tradition on death row, inmates and officers alike will try to provide some comfort in the convict’s final hours. In his book, Stevenson recounts Herbert's reflections on his last day:
“All day long people have been asking me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ When I woke up this morning, they kept coming to me, ‘Can we get you some breakfast?’ At midday they came to me, ‘Can we get you some lunch?’ All day long, ‘What can we do to help you?’ This evening, ‘What do you want for your meal, how can we help you?’ ‘Do you need stamps for your letters?’ ‘Do you want water?’ ‘Do you want coffee?’ ‘Can we get you a phone?’
Herbert sighed and looked away.
‘It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.’ He looked at me, and his face twisted in confusion.”
And as I this passage, I was struck with the tragic reality of how many people have lived their lives without experiencing kindness, generosity, and a second chance. In some places (the U.S. included), life is just a matter of survival until you die. The concept is so far removed from my personal experience that sometimes it’s hard to imagine it being real life for anyone; but I’ve also realized that with my privilege, there is opportunity to help others in a meaningful way. I’m not necessarily talking about donating money or volunteering somewhere either. Help could mean showing a kindness to someone who annoys you; or going out of your way to be polite while driving your car; or tipping extra to a rude waiter or waitress. Whatever it may be, each of us truly has the power to change the course of someone else’s experience by opening our eyes and entering into discomfort with people who may be hurting.
It's strange that Just Mercy came into my hands while I live in another country; not only that, it was recommended to me by a French lawyer! Maybe it takes being far away to see things clearly. But to clarify, I didn’t write this to challenge anyone to behave a certain way, vote a certain way, or to feel guilty; but simply to serve as a reminder that, next time one of us walks down the street, we might be passing a Herbert.