Us and them

My better half and I were in a long line yesterday afternoon, waiting to purchase some chairs.  As we waited with our fellow consumers to plunk down our hard-earned pesos at the altar of the mighty Corporate Retailer, I chanced to overhear conversation from the front of the line – specifically, a mother telling her daughter, somewhat snippily, that daughter would have to get her eyebrows and nails done in advance of some event taking place a week hence.  Mother was what you might call rather well put together – styled blond hair, flawless makeup and manicure, fashionable ensemble.  Daughter was in sweats and looking rather unenthused.  I perhaps could have understood Mother’s point had the daughter’s eyebrows been a touch on the bushy side, if mayhap traces of the dreaded unibrow were evident.  But there was quite simply nothing wrong with said brows.  (Did not get a chance to perform similar scrutiny of subject’s hands.)

Anyway, as is my wont on occasion, I uttered a few sarcastic remarks beneath my breath, expounding further to my better half as we left the store and the earshot of the woman in question, positing a preponderance of vanity on this stranger’s part, and essentially, summing up her life in a Holmesian leap of deduction after no more than a minute in her presence.  My better half, naturally, advised me to go stuff it.  (Not really, but it makes for a better story that way.)  What she did tell me was that I have a bad tendency to be very judgmental.  I didn’t know, she pointed out, if maybe daughter had been riding mother’s nerves all day long, if they had a long and complicated history, if myriads of nuanced emotional moments had crescendoed to and climaxed in that checkout line admonishment.  I was guilty of taking one look, or listen rather, and thinking I had them all figured out.  But I’m not Sherlock Holmes – indeed, his belief in his ability to read people is a deep flaw.  It is sheer folly to think we can ever know the heart of another.  We can come to love them deeply and intimately, to share each moment of our lives with them, but we can never truly understand what goes on in the space between the heartbeats.  Rather we tend to make these assumptions based on patterns, and we fill in what we can’t read with our own personality, our own morality and values, leading us, inevitably, to a conclusion that is totally wrong.

When Whitney Houston died last week, predictable comparisons were made to Amy Winehouse, another deeply troubled singer who succumbed to her demons last year.  For much of her career, Whitney Houston was tabloid fodder, with endless judgments passed on her lifestyle, her choice of partner, her struggles with drugs that seemed endless.  The large-scale reaction at the end is not shock, not sadness, but a shrug. “It was only a matter of time,” say the cynical, the insensitive.  Why not just accept that none of us could have known what was going on inside her mind?  The struggle with illness, whether mental or physical, is the most solitary of fights, the lack of our ability to understand one another the barrier that keeps us alone on that terrible battlefield.  And yet the capacity of human beings for compassion – when they choose it – at least lets us stand against the storm knowing that our friends are at our back, cheering us on.  It’s too easy to let the beast schadenfreude take over, especially when celebrities are involved, this peculiar mix of envy and loathing that we assign to those who have achieved great success.  What’s important to remember, whether it’s Whitney Houston or a random woman in the line at the store castigating her daughter’s eyebrow issues, is that it is not a cipher we are looking at, a character from a soap opera defined by a consistent and cardboard trait, but that most beautifully complicated creature of contradictions, a human being.  Defining each other by single characteristics is what leads to the identification of the stranger as an other, an enemy.  It is what has divided us into camps and tribes for our entire history, and what divides us still.  You are not me.  Us and them.

Yet we can overcome that.  It’s not necessary to form an opinion on the actions of every person we pass on the street, to compare their attitudes to our own.  We can leave them be.  We can replace judgment with respect, with empathy.  And our ability to do that, to recognize and to make the choice, is part of what makes us human.

My mind rebels at stagnation

“Give me problems, give me work” – thus sayeth Sherlock Holmes.  Though possessed of a superhuman enthusiasm and eye for detail when at his best, Holmes could barely function in the absence of a new case or a worthy opponent.  So fares humanity in the face of complacency and routine.  We have become anaesthetized by the apathy afforded to us by our gadgets, by our pursuit of ever more “entertainment” that arouses mainly – in lieu of curiosity – one’s sense of schadenfreude.  We used to dream of setting foot on Mars – now we pine for the iPhone 5.  As much as Steve Jobs deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of technology, the rest of us should be ashamed at how we allow the numbing convenience of that technology change us into passive receivers of information, or worse, robotic consumers valued only for our ability to enter our PIN at the cash register.  Human beings are more than that, aren’t we?

I don’t want to sound like the Luddite pining for the days of the telegraph and the cotton gin as civilization advances around him.  I’m as guilty as the next guy.  I have a smartphone, a high-def television, a PVR, a Wii, a Blu-ray player and Netflix; I tweet, blog, use Facebook, Quora and many other social networking sites.  Gadgetry is cool, there are no two ways about it.  Stephen Fry, who – apart from my friend Tadd – may possibly be the most literate man alive, has long been obsessed with advances in technology but has not let that passion diminish his zeal for the irreplaceable substance of the written word.  There has been more than enough dystopian fiction penned about losing ourselves amidst the efficiencies of the mechanized society.  The challenge is, as always, to integrate that technology into life without abandoning oneself to it entirely – to log out every once in a while and reconnect with the organic.  To look back at where we’ve been and learn from what has gone before.

There is an interesting parallel to this when it comes to writing, especially in the fields of science fiction and fantasy.  Too many authors, it seems to me, get caught up in creating their worlds – crafting unpronounceable place and character names (rife with apostrophes), imagining new systems of religion and government, fanciful creatures, mythical objects and rules of magic.  While those kinds of details are certainly important, they’re the icing, not the cake.  Key to any successful story, no matter the genre, is the humanity of the characters – that their emotions and conflicted feelings can be understood and shared.  I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan; J.K. Rowling focuses too much on weird beings, MacGuffins and deus ex machina for my liking, but the reason Harry Potter works and reaches the audience it does is that everyone can understand the sense of alienation from the rest of the world and the wish fulfillment of finding out that one is truly special after all.  As large book retailers go bankrupt like falling dominoes and e-readers eat up the market, hopefully the humanity of our stories will continue to shine through – from the glowing screen if not from the printed page.  We must take care not to let the pursuit of greater technology become our raison d’etre – if so, we are only the Borg minus the physical implants.  Rather, technology’s aim should be the enhancement of the human spirit – to make our souls shine brighter and stand apart from the darkness.  To do otherwise simply does not compute.