I have, alas, neither gorgeous prose nor profound insight to offer in my consideration of the 5th of Lowell Bennion’s aphorisms: “Learn to like people even though they may be different… different from you.” So I’m hoping you’ll all learn to like my writing even though it’s different from George’s.
Liking people is hard for me. I love a great many people, but I mostly like to admire them from afar. I’m tempted to prefer the company of books to the company of people, and to selfishly hoard my solitary pleasure in the out of doors instead of sharing nature’s wonders with a friend. Often, this is because I feel shy and inadequate around most people–practically everyone is smarter or prettier or more talented or kinder or richer or more athletic or more __________ (fill in any of a thousand positive attributes) than I am. (Although it has to be said that not all that many people have better shoes ;)). But sometimes–shamefully often, in fact–it’s because learning to like someone requires a particular kind of effort that is less pleasurable for me than, say, the effort of keeping all the characters in War and Peace straight. But I do very often like the characters I meet in books, even very odd ones, so as I’ve been thinking about Lowell Bennion’s Gentle Suggestion #5, I’ve thought some about why it’s easier for me to enjoy the company of the heroes and heroines of novels than that of the actual people in front of me, why I readily take solace in the company of all kinds and shapes of fictional characters, but find it more difficult to enjoy people who are really much more like me than, say, Dorothea Brooke or Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
A short list of possible reasons:
Characters in novels can’t see me; I don’t have to worry about whether my reading glasses make me look fat. That is, I never have to worry about what they think of me.
In books, (skilled) authors are careful to let us know what we need to know about characters to predict their behavior, or at least to not be completely shocked by it, in a nice methodical way. When the occasional character breaks this pattern and does something completely bizarre, we can expect that there will be an explanation at some point. In real life, by contrast, Dadaism seems to be the unfortunately prevailing aesthetic.
Characters in books don’t need me. Nothing I do or don’t do or think or say will change their lives–I can walk away from them mid-sentence and they won’t be insulted. They won’t wake me up at night (well, not very often). If they evoke my sympathy, I don’t have to do anything (even weeping is optional, though I oblige often enough to amuse my children enormously).
Characters in books are almost always incomplete. I get to imagine whatever the author has left out, and, in this creative collaboration, these characters become in some sense my creatures. I can imagine alternate plots, “if only she had known…”, “if only he had chosen x instead of y…”. To a significant degree, I can order the universe of a novel, and the people in it, to my liking.
Recently, I mentioned my job as an aide in a school for physically and intellectually disabled kids. One of the girls there had, among other things, severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her need for order was such that, when we were on field trips, she would often walk up to complete strangers and try to rearrange their posture, or where they were sitting, or how they were holding their silverware. It was rather awkward. One of the main differences between actual people and characters in my imagination is that real people tend to resist such interventions.
Now, while I’ve never felt a strong need to correct people’s posture, I think one of the major impediments to my learning to like people is that, in sincerely trying to understand them, I often want to re-imagine them just a little. I’m embarrassed to admit that, long after I was old enough to know better, I believed on some level that everyone was just like me–that if they had the same experiences and the same knowledge as I have, of course they would make the exact same choices as I do. It was a little bit like when we moved to Germany–for the first little while, even though I knew it wasn’t true, I sort of deep down imagined that everyone was thinking in English, and Germans were just better and faster than I was at translating their thoughts from English into German. I remember the moment I first self-consciously had a thought that I knew would not quite have been possible in English–it was revelatory to suddenly understand, deeply, how fundamentally language shapes our being, and that there were profound differences produced by this shaping.
I have to keep coming to this realization over and over (see above re: everyone being smarter than me!). I have learned it again as a parent–my children are so utterly different from each other in temperament, in response to the exact same situations or parenting techniques (that’s what I like to call it, even though “helpless parental flailing” is probably more accurate), that I’m often glad I was conscious for all three of their births, lest I begin to entertain fears that at least one of them could not possibly have sprung from my genetic endowment.
When I remember how utterly different my children are from each other, and how delightful each of them is, and when I stop trying to order the world and everyone in it according to my imagining, when I quit thinking that I CAN’T SLEEP BECAUSE SOMEONE ON THE INTERNET IS WRONG and desperately in need of the knowledge I can impart, it gets a whole lot easier to like people. Truly acknowledging the simple fact that people are different actually relieves me of the burden of making sense of those differences, explaining them to myself with a million “if only she …” Liking people requires first and most of all allowing them to exist as themselves, utterly distinct from me except in their worthiness and value.
I know this comes easily to some people, but I think it’s also a skill that can be developed. There’s a beautiful little book by the philosopher Philip Hallie, called In the Eye of the Hurricane, in which he studies, mostly through narrative, the subtle features of character that seem to distinguish people who help others in heroic ways, like rescuing them from shipwrecks in the 1790s, or from the crack epidemic of the 1980s. One of his principal areas of study was Le Chambon, a little village in France that had sheltered and saved hundreds of Jewish children during WWII, at great risk to the whole town. In describing the woman who had organized and energized the complicated and dangerous project, he concludes that she simply got in the habit of welcoming others.
For Magda and for many of the other villagers, helping was automatic. They weren’t conscious of it, let alone proud of it. Helping and receiving help were like breathing out and breathing in to Magda. She expected the women of the village to help her as matter-of-factly as she expected herself to open a door and invite a refugee into the middle of her busy, dangerous life.
Habit is by definition not inborn. It takes upbringing to create it and to make it firm enough to resist the temptations of fear and greed and cynicism. Magda raised her four children…in such a way that danger-provoking, food-consuming foreigners were accepted affectionately into the very center of their lives. She bade them enter the lucid mystery when she opened the heavy presbytery door to dangerous strangers with an “Of course. Come in, come in.”
It’s this habit of welcoming that I long to develop. I recognize it in other people–a word, a look, a smile that breathes “come in, come in.” One of the things I love about the church is the way that it pushes me to open the door, to get in the habit of leaving it ajar, at least. Still, I wonder sometimes if there’s something about our quest to “perfect the Saints” that subtly gets in the way of enjoying the Saints’ company. Our relentless (and generally admirable) Mormon drive towards progress, improvement, perfection can veer towards a rage for homogenizing the Saints. Our ideas of perfection tend so strongly towards a sterile sort of flawlessness. Perhaps Brother Bennion put “Learn to like other people” right in the middle of reminders to enjoy and love nature, rather than at the end (because I think it’s the very hardest one), because our joy in the created world can help us with this. If nature teaches us anything, it is that God’s creation is anything but sterile and homogeneous. It’s messy, quirky, tragic, fecund and fearsome–not just gorgeously particolored flowers, but roots and mud and microbes and mitosis and monsoons. People are like that, too. And this is a sort of perfection–of plenitude and wholeness–of which God approves: “And God saw that it was good.”
–Gerard Manley Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: