Monday, January 13, 2014

Perspectives on human experience

Every now and again things happen in life that are a bit unsettling. I don't mean bad-news stuff, but events that take me outside my normal worldview and cause me to re-realize that my perspective is limited. I had two of these happen over the weekend, back to back.

The first was meeting a man who had just donated $10 million to a cause. He was a normal, unassuming human being. This is, of course, far more disorienting than if he'd had horns and were crassly capitalistic; it's harder to demonize the 1% when you realize they are human.

I met this man in passing, at an event which I attended courtesy of a family I've known for years. More precisely, I've known the mom for years, but had never met the dad. We were invited because Little Guy is friends with their younger son, who is some years older but belongs to the same scout troop. The dad, I should add, was tagged as Romney's top pick for a key position if Romney had won the last election. So there I was, sitting next to the dad -- who was also humane and gracious -- and then he had to go say hello to this other man, and when he came back he mentioned the news about the $10 million. Later the donor stopped by to chat for a while.

The chances that I will ever own $10 million, even cumulatively in my lifetime, are probably non-existent. Consequently, I felt no envy: I can't conceptualize dollar amounts that big. Similarly, because I was face to face with a real human being, what struck me wasn't "Hey, can you share some of that?" but the humanity of this man. He had, and he gave. It is going to take me a while to wrap my head around that.

*         *        *         *

It's that season; for the next several weeks, Dancer will head to auditions for summer programs following her regular classes and rehearsals. On Saturday she began ballet at 10:30 a.m., and headed home at 7:30 p.m.

Yesterday she auditioned for a small program run by an iconic Balanchine ballerina. Because it was at a studio Dancer hasn't been to often, she asked me to come along. As we stood in line to check in I noticed the ballerina, who is now nearly 70, sitting quietly at the table, absorbed in looking at some papers. I'd read her autobiography several years ago, and my brain scrambled to take the facts that I knew about her and integrate them with the human being in front of me. The disconnect was huge. Sometimes, I think, the two don't mesh much at all; in order to have any real sense of the person-ness of a person, we have to temporarily discard the facts we know about him or her.

After the audition began I chatted with a woman whose daughters have gone to this particular summer program for years. Our kids were ballet classmates for a long time. The woman is one of the most generous human beings on the face of the earth. She is also one of the most toxic people I know. It's a complicated and challenging mix, and in certain ways I like her as much as (in other ways) I am wary of her. Talking with her is exhausting, since I have to weigh everything she says, gauging how much is true, how much is manipulative, how much she is digging for information and also, thankfully, how much is genuine interest in what I have to say.

Some people move in worlds where toxicity is the social standard. I don't. On the other hand, if I don't talk to people like this woman, how will she ever know that not everyone thinks like her? And how will I remember that not everyone thinks like me?

It's very easy for any of us to think the spectrum of human experience lies mostly within our own. But it's just not true.


  1. I'm a little confused. Why would one think about demonizing a person who had just donated $10 million? Why would one ask him if he could share some of that, when he just did share all of that? I suspect it's because one assumes that someone who donates $10 million must have a lot more than that which he hasn't donated or shared. Maybe so, maybe not. But why assume? Why not be thankful that the person made the donation, even if he did have horns and crass capitalism? Why not pray for this act of kindness to grow in him and be contagious to others? Or why not just smile and be thankful for the good thing done by whomever and for whatever motivation?

  2. I guess I didn't write that very well!

    No, I'm very thankful that the person donated. It was stunning, in a way that's hard to articulate. And I don't mean to demonize anyone, just happen to live in a part of the world where "the 1%" have been -- probably in large part unjustly -- demonized and accused of heartlessness.

    I mentioned the "can you share some?" mentality, because it was the first response of the first three people to whom I told this story. That's all.

    Sorry for the confusion. It was actually a very moving (albeit mindbending) experience.

  3. The mix of toxicity and fine qualities is especially hard to navigate when they're combined (in unusual quantities, I mean) in someone to whom you're related. "Complicated and challenging" is a good way of describing it, and navigating those challenges is an exhausting and sometimes overwhelming task, and yes, the having to weigh everything and sift out what's true, what's likely to be true, what has to be checked with others, and what you can just take at face value is daunting. On the other hand, it makes me very grateful for the fully functional relationships I have.

  4. As soon as I read the paragraph about the someone who is complicated and challenging a friend's name popped into my head. She is funny, and witty, but gossips nonstop. I too find myself weighing everything and becoming exhausted talking to her. I sure hope my name doesn't pop into any someone's head when they read that description. Makes me think.

    As always, I love your posts Julia.