I’d like to think I’m a decent human being, but truth be told, I have a long way to go. Somehow I’ve come to believe that nodding while pretending to listen is the honorable thing to do in the face of uncomfortable social exchanges. Feigned sincerity may be a lie we all tell, but it’s still a lie. We can do better.
Last night, while crossing the apartment courtyard to the laundry room, a mentally disabled older man stood there watching my every move. It made me uncomfortable and I was feeling antisocial, but he was standing at the entrance to the laundry room, so there was no avoiding an interaction with him. The moment I reached the laundry room entrance, he spoke:
“Hello! My name is Arnie! I’m doing laundry! Are you doing laundry too?”
“My name is Arnie! What’s your name?”
“Hello Jeff! I’m doing laundry! I like your detergent! I use the same detergent! Did you get it from HEB?”
“Yes I did.”
“I like HEB! It’s a good store!”
“I suppose it is.”
And such was the nature of our conversation. He had one lazy eye and one eye out of focus, and a small bit of drool coming out of both corners of his mouth.
“Jeff! I don’t speak too well! Sometimes I can’t get what’s in here…” he pointed to his chest, “…out here!” he pointed to his mouth. “I have trouble saying what’s in me!”
I looked at the man and guilt washed over me. Interacting with him made me uncomfortable, and that discomfort exposed a shallowness within my soul – a reluctance to be thankful for the advantageous conditions within which I exist, and an inability to truly empathize with the less fortunate. I wasn’t treating him as a man because he wasn’t communicating like a man, but was he not a man in his heart?
Does implying he is less fortunate not expose a sort of deplorable arrogance on my part?
Does my preoccupation with my own guilt not expose a profoundly egocentric narcissism with which I interact with the world?
“I like you, Jeff! I’m glad I met you!”
“I’m glad I met you too.” I forgot his name. It wasn’t Arnie. I just made that up.
This encounter recalled to me the countless encounters with homeless individuals in the places I’ve lived: these shadowy, undesirable, subhuman characters we ignore all too easily in their plight to survive day by day via means of which we may haughtily disapprove. Perhaps if I too were homeless, I would think differently. But there I pass by, one panhandler after another, thinking, “If I don’t look at them, maybe they won’t exist.” And suddenly, the marginalization of fellow human beings is one step closer to completion.
I see these individuals standing as mirrors, reflecting back to me the frailty of my own conscience. I used to think that this reaction to them, letting them expose to me my moral or interpersonal shortcomings, was somehow better than just seeing them as annoying or disdainful, but in reality, it’s just as bad, because when you see someone as a mirror, even if you experience humility through your reflection, you’re still not seeing them as a human being.
My language itself, using words like “they” contrary to “I,” exposes more than my shameless self-absorbed rationalizations ever could.
I, I, I, me, me, me, my, my, my. Awful words. I know they are. But I only have my own self through which I can experience the world. Excuses. Empty rationalizations. If I could experience the world through other people, I would. What a cop-out. I can do better. I.. can do better. I… I.. I… I…
If you only ever see individuals in terms of oneself, will you ever truly see them for who they are?
Shame, guilt, remorse… they’re all narcissistic responses to our bigotry. Yet, it’s as if guilt gives us the authorization to act as moral judges on behalf of humanity, as if experiencing guilt and knowing ourselves to be shameful sinners absolves ourselves of the sin itself.
Inward guilt is better than outward disdain, I suppose, but it’s a far cry from outward humanity.
And thus I see myself at the base of a tall mountain: the Mountain of Interpersonal Humanity, upon which you climb to transcend your ability to connect with your fellow human being, to remove yourself from your narcissistic world view and part from your egocentric life below. Like any other towering mountain peak, I see this mountain as having layers of ecological (psychological) zones. When you start out at its base, you know guilt, and you see people as mirrors of that guilt (I vs. They), then you climb and eventually see people as individuals (I vs. You). But don’t stop! Climb further, and soon you will see yourself with everyone as part of a humanity, a unity of mind and spirit! You have achieved “We!”
But don’t stop there. Beyond We is the peak: the true summit of selflessness, where guilt and pronouns don’t exist. Only here is where you earn redemption. And yet, you don’t earn redemption because “you” don’t exist. With the self gone, there is nothing to redeem. Personal shortcomings are absolved, but that doesn’t matter. There are no pronouns, only the Universe. Only existence.
Perhaps that mysterious, nearly unattainable, metaphysical summit is Heaven.
And yet, as long as I see the world in terms of I, I, I, me, me, me, I will never reach even the slopes of that mountain. Thus is the folly of ego.