Last night, I read a speech by a favourite author of mine, John Green. The speech is quite long, and a part of it stuck in my head, and left me up late, thinking:
How do we draw the world and its inhabitants?
Political theorists have exalted the importance of lenses and how they colour things for a very long time. How far can our imaginations, our consciousness, take us, when we imagine other people? How close is my internalized version of a friend, an acquaintance, or a lover?
I consider myself good at this, drawing others, taking them in and parsing them out into something understandable. But, really, what can I know? What if my rendering is wrong? It’s like the police sketches of a crime scene that witnesses create from memory. Despite their best attempts to communicate an accurate rendering, the images are so often ridiculously far-off.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Anais Nin said that.
I draw my own police sketches of the world and its inhabitants. You do, too. These pictures tucked in our pockets, we move through our days, imagining our acquaintances, making judgments, drawing conclusions. We are co-creators of one-another’s stories; how you imagine me, collectively, is as salient (maybe even more so?) than my own self-conception. I wonder what those drawings look like?
Green quotes Walt Whitman: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/ But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/ And filter and fibre your blood.”
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.
That’s the important line. I think we ought to consider more carefully the drawings we make of one-another, the conclusions we draw, the health we bring to our relationships, all of them, however tenuous. It’s easy to call quick judgments, to dismiss someone, to pigeon-hole him or her, to sketch these superficial images. Consume and dispose. Green calls “hardly knowing” the ecstatic pleasure. In a way, yes. We chase mystery. But “hardly knowing” means too that we have to fill in the gaps with our incomplete evidence and cross our fingers that we’ve distilled things down correctly.
I think W.H. Auden, too, had it right. “We must love one another or die.” I will never walk a mile in your shoes, as they fit your feet, and as you put your legs one in front of the other. I can’t, because this will always be shaded by my preconceptions, my imperfect evidence, the judgments I carry, consciously or not, of your pleasure or plight.
But if I try my damndest to understand your place at the centre of your universe, as I am at the centre of mine, I can break free of this hard-wire inside me, at least for a moment. My pictures will never be accurate, but that shouldn’t stop me from being attentive to my own fictional narratives, and closing my eyes more tightly as I remember the suspect’s face.