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.