‘Most’ of us peg the ‘others’ of us as ‘selfish’, or ‘self-centered’. And we say it (or maybe just think it) with the slightest hint of smugness, as though sticking that label on someone else somehow absolves us of eligibility.
But no matter how quickly we slap that label on someone else, we find it firmly pinned to our own chest the very moment we turn around. We become predators of a sort, forcing the world to make sense as defined by our selves, by our own standards. We simply cannot let be, moving along and admitting that something befuddles us but trusting that it probably makes sense to someone else. We are so unable to shift our minds from their own tunnels, that we inevitably sacrifice the lives that we could have to the lives that we envision – because anything that we can’t understand can’t possibly be good, can it? Life itself falls prey to our own inability to see with eyes unfettered by own views, beliefs, opinions and ideas. And we can’t help it, not one of us, and probably never will. To quote Selene from the iconic film Underworld: ‘You will kill, and you will feed. It’s unavoidable.’
What we destroy and consume is often something beautiful, because we just couldn’t make ourselves see the value in it.
Why is that? Why must the world shrink itself to fit our consciousness? I am always surprised when someone I once knew pops up again, doing well, or perhaps not so well. Maybe they’ve married, or maybe they’ve divorced. Maybe they’ve been in jail, or maybe they’ve just returned from Timbuktu. Maybe my relationship with them – whether it was platonic, or romantic – ended amicably, or maybe its end was bitter. In any case, I am always shocked by the changes they’ve made to their lives. How could their life have gone on when it was out of my sight? They were, to my mind, nothing more than a part of ‘my’ world. So why then these changes, these adjustments to the person I once knew? A part of me, I believe, honestly expects that people cease existing when they move out of my knowledge.
I can’t grasp that life – anyone’s life – could possibly go on independently of me. I may say that I can, but I can’t because I am always surprised when they do.
We gauge the importance of everything by our own experience. We can’t help that, either, I think. James Joyce is a classic author, oft-quoted, widely-read, and generally beloved by aficionados of fine literature. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but lump him in with inconsequential, dime-store hacks. Why?
Well, because I’ve never read him. That’s why! End of story.
Every once in a while, I’ll run across some band or another, playing out in a local bar. Sometimes I’m tempted to run screaming from said bar, clutching my ears in pain, finding their music unbearable. Yet those bands bring fans along, fans who like them and follow them and sing along to their songs. Are their fans tone-deaf? Can they not hear the sonic agony lingering in the very air?
Of course they can’t – because they are them, and not me. Yet somehow, I can’t wrap my little mind around this concept. They must simply be stupid. I like to hope that I’m charitable enough not to actually think that, but it’s floating in the back of my head.
On the flip side of the coin, my stepfather rolled up on me one day as I was writing, and listening to Avril Lavigne’s debut CD Let Go. ‘Wow’, he says. ‘She really can’t sing, can she?’
Phooey on him! How dare he?!
Now, my stepfather has been playing guitar for fifty years. He may have been a dud as a parent, but he does have a ‘perfect-pitch’ ear, and he always knows what he’s talking about when it comes to music. If he says ol’ Avril wasn’t such a great singer, then he’s probably right.
But I was indignant anyway, despite the fact that he was most certainly ‘right’, or at least more ‘right’ than I. Why was I annoyed?
Well, because I’m me, that’s why!
Years ago I was sitting in Emerson’s Tobacco Shop with a friend of mine, drinking the free coffee while he smoked a stogie with some old fart. (BTW, you meet the most interesting people in tobacco shops, and they always have a moment to chat.) He, my friend, and some other (slightly obnoxious) dude got into a debate about who made the best cigar. My friend was touting the merits of Puerto Rican black-leaf with a dark Connecticut wrapper. Old Fart was all about the Candela leaf, while Obnoxious was fervently preaching about Cuban seed product.
This went on for a while, as these sort of things often do.
And then Old Fart said something that I have never forgotten, and won’t as long as I live. He looked at everyone and smiled, and he said “You know what the best cigar in the whole world is, better than anything else you’ll ever smoke?”
And I asked, “What?” (I’m thinking he’s gonna point at the hundred-dollar stogie, the one they won’t even let me go into the humidor and sniff lest I get boogers upon its nicotine-laced goodness.)
He takes a big ol’ puff, and he says, “The best cigar… is your favorite. The one you like best. Ain’t nothin’ better than that.”
What a graceful, clever way of putting it. Such a candid acknowledgment that, for better or worse, our self-focused viewpoint is the only viewpoint that we’ll ever see. What a succinct way of saying that one should be always aware of one’s own never-ending failure to truly adopt another’s take on something, try as one might.
It is to the credit of both our specie and our culture that we have invented such social niceties as apologies, tactful conversation, and patience in order overcome this otherwise-crippling handicap.
I hate the rock band U2. Can’t stand the sound of ’em. And if you like ’em, well, you must be a dummy. After all, you don’t even exist if I’m not aware of your actions. That’s why I’ll be surprised when I see you again in two years, and you’ve started a business and your kid grew six inches.
And all of you – I said ALL OF YOU – are regarding me in a similar manner. But underneath our undying inability to truly see through the eyes of another, there lies an empathy that is our saving grace. Somehow we learn to keep silent, when we are tempted to be overtly disagreeable. It’s why we express remorse when we wound someone; granted, we’ll probably repeat the offense but not showing remorse would be even more unforgivable, wouldn’t it?
Despite the fact that all we have is our narrow, ultimately unchangeable thought processes, most of us learn to behave as though we can stand in the shoes of another. It is this trait that redeems the human being, an animal that would otherwise be damned. Yet we must be ever aware of our inescapable narrow-mindedness, lest it lead us to lay even bigger pieces of our lives upon the altar of Broken Dreams and Shattered Relationships… For then we would become the predator once more, and Selene’s grim prediction will come true (at least in the figurative sense).
You will kill. You will feed….