I am an inconsistent creature. Over time, what I think changes. What I want changes. What I believe evolves. Yet I am inherently conservative – I use that word advisedly, of course … nothing raises people’s ire quite so much as a quasi-political label. And that is one that is inherently vexed – especially among writers, pseudo-artists and the like. It is, nonetheless, a correct designation. I find in myself a fixed core that remains unchanged since I was two. I say, “since I was two”, because I remember it at two. I had certain features of personality, tastes, drives, a particular temperament, dislikes, loves, beliefs or assumptions about the universe. I have been described more than once as a constant in people’s worlds. I do not change. But I change all the time.
I suppose that dichotomy is not to be wondered at. I find the contradiction everywhere. It seems (at least to me) to be unalienable from life.
I do learn. I have become a veritable storehouse of useless trivia. My mind is a hoarder’s dream. Snatches of songs, scenes from novels, movie quotes, historical oddities, bits of philosophy and theology, poems. Abbe Faria in The Count of Monte Cristo claimed that, “with 150 well-chosen books, books a man possesses a complete analysis of all human knowledge, or at least all that is either useful or desirable to be acquainted with.” I can only conclude, I must have read all the wrong books.
There are, however, a few things I learn that have the force of revelation. The ones where the air is alive, expectant – just before the lightning falls. The ones that appear in bold print. The ones that have that eureka aftertaste. These I could tell you in a few sentences.
The only problem is this. Bereft of the electricity in the air, absent the bold print, lacking the reverberating omniscient narrator voice, they are childishly simple. We either take them or leave them, depending on our point of view at the time. If they are embraced, they feel like things you have always known … revelation is memory, relearning. They are like the Tao or human nature or friction or gravity. They are. And you spend your enery either fighting them, ignoring them, or living with them.
That was overly flowery.
The mind is tempted to explain. Its natural tendency, this is amplified by embarrassment at their absurd simplicity, their obviousness. The more intricately truths of this type are analyzed, the more they are falsified. It’s not that they can be made false. It’s that the analysis is false. The rationale is false.
I’ll tell you the one I’m currently running up against. We are the same; we are different. We are the same in the sense that each of us is an I. Whether we know it or not, whether we can articulate it or not, there is something primally equal in our uniqueness, in our livingness. It is not the equality of facts. It is the equality of the experience of being. Joy for you is the same as joy for me; hurt for you is the same a hurt for me. I recognize you. (This means many things, I think – but one is that I cannot judge you. You are guilty of no sin of which I am not at least capable, and for which I am not at least culpable. At the same time, you hold no virtue that is beyond me. To evaluate you is to evaluate me.)
But we also differ. Your viewpoint is unique. Utterly. We are alone in that sense – we are alone together. I am not you; you are not I. While I recognize you in myself, I am appalled by your absolute strangeness. I am constitutionally incapable of truly seeing things from your point of view – from experiencing them as you are experiencing them. Knowledge, sympathy, empathy, compassion cannot cross this fixed gulf. You are you, I am I. The most I can know of you is what your experience might mean if I experienced it. (This too has many consequences – among others, that I am unqualified to judge you. I have not been you.)
I tend to forget this second part. It is brought to my attention in myriad ways. Nonetheless, I am a slow learner. I’ll give you an example. You’re familiar with the “golden rule”? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – or, if you prefer, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to another”. While there are distinctions between these two statements, the ethical premise is similar. I accept the notion – enthusiastically even. But were I to follow it unaided, I would run into a rather large problem. If I treat others the way I want to be treated, I will get an unfortunate reaction: they will almost invariably never speak to me again. I don’t mean the obvious things, of course. But I have often been stunned at how poorly received my actions are – precisely when I treat others as I would like to be treated. Equally, I have often been plagued by well-meaning people who do for me what they would want.
Does this mean I’m odd? Probably. Gender and cultural differences sometimes play a role, but the discrepancy goes far beyond that. Does that invalidate the ethical premise? Of course not. It just adds an extra step.
My point is that we’re different. And it is incredibly difficult for us not to assume that the way we are is really “right”. Dealing with differences is dealing with the “wrongness” of others. It is incredibly difficult to resist the urge to meddle: to fix others … because they are different than we are. While our culture claims to place a premium on individuality, I simply don’t see it. Nonconformity within extremely rigid bounds is highly praised. But those bounds are fixed and absolute. Different is defective.
It was something of a revelation to me that the most unpleasant argument I have had in recent memory centered around one statement: we’re different. One way of being is not better than the other; neither is it worse. It isn’t illness; it isn’t brokenness, it isn’t evil, it isn’t unspirituality, it isn’t sin. It is just difference.
I’m not denying that there is such a thing as sin, that actions can be good or bad, that there can be right or wrong. I’m just saying two things: judgments of the value of individuals are always faulty, and differences among people – how we experience life – are not and cannot be illness, defect, or evil in themselves. Much harm in this world would be avoided if we simply grasped that people were different, that our way of being was not inherently superior, and that meddling and trying to fix others – solely for being different is a form of violence.