[First, apologies to anyone who's using Google Reader. You may have noticed an incomplete version of this post appeared on accident earlier today. For some reason I can delete the post on my blog but it is still in your Google Reader. Here is the finished version!]
Okay, let me start by telling you a story about an old friend of mine named Jesse. I have known Jesse for about twelve or thirteen years, but we haven't been in contact very much in the past six or seven.
About two or three years ago, Jesse came to town to visit his brother. He went to my congregation for church and we chatted and caught up a little bit. At one point during the church meeting, I made some kind of immature disparaging joke about the speaker's voice. My remark was not too offensive, but it certainly wasn't Christlike.
Jesse shrugged. "People are people," he said.
My friend Jesse doesn't know it, but that sentence changed my life. It's become sort of a motto to me. See, here I was making sarcastic comments about another human being, and why? Not because I'm a bad person, but because I didn't humanize the Other. Because when I heard a guy with a funny voice, he became a stock character - a dimensionless, expressionless, emotionless, experienceless being whose existence was defined solely by his entertainment value. Not a genuinely unique, wholly other creature whose experience of the universe is unlike mine in ways I can barely fathom. I didn't have empathy for him.
Maybe empathy is the key to virtue. Maybe the key is to realize, as Jesse pointed out, that "people are people."
If you've been reading my blog for a little while, you may have seen this theme re-emerge over and over again in my musings. I've written about the dehumanizing effects of technology, about the dehumanizing effects of pornography, about the dehumanizing effects of religious dogmatism, and - most recently - about the dehumanizing effects of political rigidity. It's probably my biggest pet topic, my soapbox of choice: we oversimplify the world and its inhabitants, and we need to stop.
This theme keeps coming back to my mind because I believe if we all were to humanize the Other, it would literally change the world. C. S. Lewis said that if we were to see each other's true, infinite potentials (as eternal beings, we are each destined to become either godlike or devilish), then we'd treat each other differently. I'd like to adapt that claim and suggest, as Nietzsche perhaps might, that we needn't look to the distant and supernatural future to find existential meaning in our (or in one another's) lives: we can look to the present! It certainly requires less imagination.
You see, regardless of the afterlife, we are all important.
My claims rely somewhat on a theological stance I took in an earlier post about God. I argued that God is not a micro-manager, and that we are legitimately co-actors with Him in this universe. God cooperates with us to try to make our world the best place possible. Therefore He isn't omniresponsible for evil things happening, because part of His plan is for each of us to have genuine agency, which means that we make genuine choices given genuine possibilities.
Given this theological assumption, we are not scripted actors on a stage, playing out a predetermined plot, reciting lines that have already been written. Instead, we are improvisational actors! God is still the director, but our stories have not been told already. We are telling them right now.
Why does this matter? Because it means that everyone that "we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit," everyone we even just see in passing, is writing their story right now. They are determining their future. In a sense, they are creating the universe, every day! They are not stock characters or "extras" in your story. They are the main characters in their own!
When I walked home from campus the other day, I counted how many people I passed by. The final number was something like 75. Think about those 75 people. You'll probably walk by 75 people sometime soon, too. Maybe one has fallen in love for the first time; maybe two just found out they're going to be parents; maybe three are about to interview for their dream job. And on the other hand, maybe one thought about suicide this month; maybe two got in an argument this morning and told each other to go to hell; maybe three are addicted to pornography.
Maybe you walked by someone for whom today is literally the best, the worst, or the last day of their life! Or maybe you walked by someone who just lost a father, a sister, or a child in a tragic accident. Maybe you walked by a girl who is so stressed about school that she is going to drop out, and she doesn't know how to tell her parents. Or a guy who has been struggling with whether or not to "come out" and tell the people he loves that he is homosexual. Or a couple who are struggling financially. Or a couple who are going through divorce.
You get the point, right? Everywhere you go, you are the "extra" in dozens and dozens of private, autobiographical films. Perhaps there aren't any cameras, but there are narratives nonetheless. Everyone is telling a unique story, with highs and lows, with inspiring moments and devastating moments, with existential crises and moments of clarity.
Anything we can do to humanize the Other, to bring people to this realization more often and more effectively, will change the world. I am saying this without hyperbole. This is what it's all about. This is what poetry and art are for; this is what postmodern psychology (like Viktor Fankl's "Man's Search for Meaning") is for; this is what novels are for. I'd even argue that this is what films are for. That isn't to say that all films accomplish this end. But the best ones aim to.
Films like "Ray" (about Ray Charles) or "Walk The Line" (about Johnny Cash), for example, take the lives of famous musicians and try to bring them down from the pedestal of celebrity. They refuse to let us idolize, deify, or demonize famous people, insisting instead that we feel their human sufferings vicariously. The other day I had a long conversation with some friends about "Ray" and what does or doesn't make it worth watching. Let's be honest: it's hard to watch! It has a lot of heavy subject matter, and it's often unpleasant! But I believe bio-pics about unpleasant lives like that are worth watching because they force us to recognize people behind tabloid-headline oversimplifications (think of Michael Jackson, and what comes to mind? The scandal of perverted rumors and lawsuits? The glory of his iconic "King of Pop" status? Either way, you don't think of a human being who - just like you or I - tried to get through life as best he could. That's why we need films like "This Is It")! But it's not just celebrity bio-pics or documentaries that do this; in essence, this is an inherent function and purpose of storytelling in general. Part of why we tell stories is to humanize the Other: to force our audience to recognize that the person they reduce to a caricature is actually a soul - with all the complexities and imperfections that implies. Francis Ford Coppolla filmed "The Godfather" not to glorify a life of violence and crime, but to show that the people who live those lives, and make those choices, are humans, too - not descriptions or objects, but people! Remember, the world is not a scripted play with Good Guys and Bad Guys (indeed, there's no such thing as a good guy or a bad guy!). The world is a community of souls.
I've just used up far too much space trying to articulate what my friend Jesse said the last time I saw him, because I have a tendency to over-explain and over-analyze. It will be easy for you to forget the 1,300 words you just read; I will not blame you if you do. But please, try to remember at least these three:
"People are people."