The Cynics’ Monkey Wrench

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

By Robert C. Koehler

If you depart from an “us vs. them” philosophy of life, your first confrontation is likely to be with the cynics.

Last week, for instance, I wrote about the weekend I spent, a decade ago, getting handgun training from the NRA — and what I learned, which is that the things you need to fear are endless, and when one of them pops up in your life you’d better be prepared to kill it. One reader said he wondered “if Robert has ever truly felt as though his life or those he values were threatened” and quickly answered his own question: Of course not! And then he crooned, oh so tenderly: “Must be nice for Robert to live in such an insulated bubble.”

Issue solved! Everyone needs a gun, except for the utterly naïve.

If I’d had a gun, I may have taken aim at this snarky fool, but eventually I started calming down and thinking about his words — this monkey wrench of cynicism, as I called it — with slightly more positive energy.

Have I ever felt threatened? Well, considering that I live in Chicago — in a neighborhood on the city’s northeast side called Rogers Park, which is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhoods on Planet Earth — the answer is, uh . . . yes. In fact, I started thinking about my move to Chicago, from rural Michigan, when I was in my late 20s. Oh, the welcome I had!

I had been a back-to-the-lander, work for which I had no natural skills, and decided I needed to begin looking for a career in journalism. When I got nowhere locally, I realized my best option was the big, complicated city 120 or so miles to the west. This was a complex move, to put it mildly: from a rented farmhouse to a fifth-floor-walkup studio apartment, in the neighborhood known as Lakeview, which had not, in the mid-’70s, begun to gentrify. It was untamed in those days, as exemplified by some graffiti that showed up one day in the foyer of my new building: “Little Eagles of Wilton.” (Wilton was a street a block away.) “Will Kill!”

My friend Dick, who had a pickup truck, helped me with the move. We hauled the basic miscellany that was now my life — a mattress, a chair, a table, my bicycle, a few dishes, a bunch of books — up those five floors. Within minutes of finishing, there was a knock on the door. Huh?

A voice said: “Police.” Then: “This is a homicide investigation.”

Wow! Welcome to Chicago! Turns out they wanted to talk to my neighbor, who wasn’t answering his door, so they wanted to climb through my window and walk across the flat roof — I was on the top floor of the building — to the neighbor’s window and enter his apartment that way. Yeah, sure, go ahead.

I later learned that no, the neighbor was not a murderer. He wasn’t actually a suspect, just someone who may have had some information. I have no idea what became of the investigation, but I later became friends with the guy. And this “welcome” to Chicago certainly had metaphorical significance, telling me I had just moved to a city full of surprises. All sorts of surprises. I had essentially known that anyway, but now I knew it in real time.

Fortunately, this potential for surprise is what attracted me to the city in the first place. I had moved with a determination not to be afraid — of the people I encountered, of the city itself. What I told myself right from the start was: Look everybody in the eye. Doing this accomplished something more significant than simply making eye contact. The first thing it did was give me control of my own emotions, because I imagined that, somehow, we’re all in this together. Thus I created an emotional foundation for myself that acknowledged complexity — I might be shocked — but regardless, I was not going to think of the other person as my enemy . . . and thus be afraid of him.

OK cynics, I know you’re getting revved, anxious to toss in another monkey wrench. I’m not saying there isn’t danger out there, that life is all nicey-nice if you have a positive attitude. What I’m saying is that fear is mostly internal. We create the context in which we live. And if we live in fear, well, we can quickly, and often unnecessarily, manufacture dangerous enemies, both in our minds and in the real world.

I think back again to my first year in Chicago, living in that studio apartment. What if I’d had a gun? I’d have been stuck in my little world, ever waiting for the time to come when I had to defend myself (maybe from the Little Eagles of Wilton). I would not have been able to let the city itself, in all its complex fullness, into my life. I would not have loved my life. I would have been disconnected from it.

And the career I found my way into — journalism — required just that sort of openness . . . to everybody. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how deeply and intensely people wanted to be listened to. And oh, they had things to say! I remember, for instance, talking to a husband and wife who had had two sons murdered, one of them — I had written about the crime — by his best friend. Guess what? I also talked to the parents of the boy who had committed the murder. I listened to both stories. The remorse was overwhelming in both living rooms. No, there was no easy fix to this; the wounds were lifelong. But they all needed to be heard, and I feel that by listening, taking notes, putting their stories into coherent words, I had, just maybe, helped us all see — envision — a world beyond the violence that had happened.

Please don’t assume I say these words simplistically, naively. I’ve been a victim. Some years ago I was jumped on a street near my house by three teenage boys, who punched me in the face, knocked me down, attempted — but failed — to rob me. When I screamed for help, they ran. No big deal, right? Worse things have happened.

But I do know the dark side. Because I was active in the city’s Restorative Justice movement, some friends held a circle for me afterward and I wound up learning how much I was loved. And if the boys had been caught, what I would have wanted most wasn’t revenge. It would have been sitting in a circle with them, looking them in the eyes, listening to their stories and letting them hear mine.

In the process, we would have learned something incredible. We’re all in this together.