Thursday, August 26, 2010

Long Hard Roads

Apparently there are two ways to make me really angry: one is to suggest that I'm stupid, and the other is to suggest that I'm complacent. I'll swallow a lot – I'm not ordinarily a terribly contentious or insistent fellow – but those will get a rise out of me, every time. You can suggest that I'm selfish, lazy, incompetent, or inconstant, and I'll probably just mildly agree that often enough I am all those things. But suggest that I don't understand, or don't care, and you'll find you've got one ferocious, vindictive Favier on your hands.

Understanding and caring are virtues, of course, but they're not the only ones in the calendar. Why do I clutch them so tight? Why is my ego so heavily invested in them that all my charity and compassion vanish if someone so much as hints that I'm deficient in them?

That may be an idle question. Who knows? I grew up with a father determined to instill understanding, and a mother determined to instill caring . But I have doubts about the historical determinism of psychology, and the usefulness of the historical method of understanding yourself. And anyway, that's not really what I wanted to ask. What I wanted to ask is, what does that tell me? What should I know and watch for, because of it?

Well, that I should loosen my insistence on both of them. That I will be most tempted to do hurtful things in the name of understanding and caring. And that sometimes I should let it alone, let myself appear stupid and complacent.

Lama Michael once suggested, as an exercise, dressing up in clothes you would never wear, styling your hair in a way you would never style it, driving a car you would never drive. Anything to interrupt the constant filtering of experience, the constant process of making sure that people we consider our enemies stay alien and hostile, and people we consider our friends stay cosy and friendly. Of course we think the people we identify with are nicer people: we signal them with a thousand signs that we're on their side, that we'll welcome their thoughts and approve of them. Our clothes, our comportment, our cars, our bumper stickers, our dialect, our vocabulary, our makeup, our tattoos – it's all designed to signal to others: I'm one of your kind, expect me to be nice or I'm your enemy, expect me to be hostile. And everyone else obligingly does the same. How could someone costumed as a lefty tree-hugger not go through life thinking that lefty tree-huggers are nicer people? They're the people who smile back, who are supportive, who give you the benefit of the doubt. In just this way, someone who goes about advertising himself as a conservative Christian will find that conservative Christians are nicer people. But suppose you swap your clothes, your makeup, your tats, and your hairstyles? You'll find out soon enough that your own people are not nearly so nice as you supposed. They'll be stony-faced, suspicious, and critical; they'll always assume the worst about you. They're not really such nice people as you thought.

Last night, on request, I read the long first chapter of the The Lord of the Rings aloud to Martha, Ashley, and Tori. Forty pages about an elaborate birthday party. (Try to sell a novel that starts like that nowadays!) Outside was the hiss of the waves, the sough of the wind. I was as close to happy as I'm ever likely to be.

We look before and after, and pine for what is not
our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught
our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought

They're all long hard roads, even the easiest ones.

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