Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
I am human, so nothing human is foreign to me.
Riding on a cruise ship once, I went to the deck alone at sunset. After the sun had sunk behind the horizon, going to light Asia, I could hear the sea still crashing in the blackness. Sky, land, and creature have their nightly rest, but the ocean never sleeps. In the spirit of seafaring, and for an upcoming college class, I was reading Homer’s Odyssey. As I listened to the waves lapping rhythmically against the ship’s hull, they became the sound of the ocean lapping the shores of antiquity. I thought of the Greeks rowing their galleys across this same divisionless ocean, though there called the Mediterranean and here the Pacific. Leaning over the rail and looking down at the dark water, I shivered to imagine the ship — a miraculously floating mass of metal — remembering its weight and dragging me down to a sea-floor tomb like the crew of Odysseus. Homer tells of strange and frightful monsters in the deep, and modern science has confirmed their existence, no less fearsome though we have given them familiar names like “squid” and “shark” and “eel.” As I thought of the same jawed fishes swimming under my and Homer’s sea, I felt an acute sense of the continuity of generations. Centuries of men and women have lived and died, lived and died, and the same ocean has rumbled eternally around them all — the fixed sea encircling the mutable shores. Looking up, I resolved the random stars into the constellations named by the Greeks for navigation. I imagined the ancient sailor’s comfort when, through breaks in storm clouds, he saw the guiding lights of Taurus or Virgo — like the twenty-first-century captain’s comfort to see the computer-screen lights that are our modern constellations. We never meet most of humankind nor know their names, yet I felt I knew the dead from inside, by looking outside at the world they left behind.
In the natural bias of our minds, we cannot easily believe that people distant in time or space are real like us. If our next-door neighbors’ house burns down, we rush to their aid with pity, for, since they are like us, we can picture ourselves in them. Yet if some unpronounceable village in Cambodia burns down, and mothers are weeping for dead children on television, though we sympathize, many of us vaguely suppose that calamity is natural where they live, and grief there stings less than here. The superficiality of news coverage encourages such prejudices. In newspapers crushing personal disasters are cleaned into a paragraph of neat, unimpassioned prose, which conveys no pain to the coffee-sipping reader. War casualties are not reported as deaths of mothers’ sons but as monthly statistics, and lives are lumped in a common grave of collective memory.
Similarly, in high-school classes, I never thought about history as having actually happened to real people. The Wars of the Roses and the French Revolution were not tumultuous events that shook and took lives but lessons in textbooks I had to memorize for quizzes. Because the victims of bubonic plague had died six hundred years ago, being dead seemed their essence, and I forgot that they had faced their impending mortality as I will: hearts pounding, having known only life.
College made inroads into my ignorance, as I studied history not through modern textbooks but through ancient stories, poems, and chronicles in which the dead themselves speak, instead of being spoken about. Primary sources tell history from inside, revealing the core of feeling beneath the shell of facts. I discovered the ancients in their own then-modern present, viewing a world in progress. I became conscious of their consciousness. All our experiences are as old as the species, yet we do not know it until books open other souls. I recall a semester when my thoughts had become morbid. Each morning I woke and wondered if I would die that day. Every truck I passed on the highway I pictured veering into me. Then I had to read The Epic of Gilgamesh for a class. What had ancient Mesopotamia to do with me? I knew nothing of ziggurats and cuneiform tablets. Yet in this alien land I found a friend in the fear of death. With the passion of personal interest, I accompanied the hero on his quest for immortality and felt consoled, although that quest was unsuccessful. If Gilgamesh feared to die, the culture conceiving him did too, and therefore why should I be ashamed, seeing my fear was not mine but humankind’s?
Books lift us out of the smallness of the present and into history, out of the smallness of ourselves and into humanity. Most readers favor modern books, equating old with irrelevant. But just as a phrase in one’s native language jumps from a page of foreign text one is struggling to translate, familiar passions jump from the strange depictions of earlier times. Everything about a work like Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur — the antiquated diction, the predictable plots, the superstitions, the culture of chivalry, the odd names of characters and places — loudly and constantly proclaims how far you are from the twenty-first century. Yet in the fierce loves that bind Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere to their eventual ruin, one can recognize the same themes that dominate today’s movie screens. These passions and their consequences were what Malory wrote to convey; the trappings were merely the setting he had to work with. Kings and knights are nothing nowadays, but the same flesh that once wore chain mail now wears nylon jackets and cotton shirts.
My college experiences, like my studies, were a lesson in rebutting prejudice, once I learned to read instead of skim. Ancient mythologies describe strangers who turn out to be gods in disguise; every stranger I met turned out to be a human being in disguise. Growing up, I was frightened of beggars when visiting cities. Dressed in rags and accosting me for money, they were as unnerving as dogs off leashes. Fear stifled my pity by keeping my gaze cast down at the sidewalk. One night on a study-abroad trip in Edinburgh, Scotland, when a beggar addressed my friends and me in a deserted square, I glanced at his face from within the huddle’s safety. He was young and apparently newly homeless. Whereas many beggars seem accustomed to being ignored, he seemed both embarrassed to ask for help and incredulous that he was not being helped or even acknowledged — refused the mere dignity of a refusal. His expression made him comprehensible to me. I could recall my own embarrassment in high school when having to sell magazines or solicit donations door-to-door. The next day, in regret for having ignored someone so like me in all but luck, I gave a wad of cash to the first beggar I saw.
Before college I was a skeptic and rationalist toward every religion except my own, Christianity. Like most of humanity, I had believed the religion I’d heard first, and on its authority dismissed all the religions I’d heard second. Seeing Muslims wearing turbans or Hindus bindis, I thought the oddity of their customs proved the error of their beliefs. Studying all faiths in one class in college, however, I saw my religion from the outside and realized that the rites of my Sundays — warbling choirs and smocked babies dipped in silver fonts and bread as the body of Christ — were as curious as what I had disparaged as myths. In class discussions I sometimes unwittingly revealed assumptions that I thought were axioms, and would read surprise in the eyes of a Hare Krishna or Bahai. My notion of normal was an accident of my birth and upbringing. Whomever I saw as strange saw me as strange. I had raised a doubtful brow at Buddhists bowing to golden statues, even as I prayed weekly to a crucified first-century Jew, not realizing that either all religions are bizarre or none is.
Between classes, the campus quads were a circus of diversity. At information booths student groups promoted a profusion of causes, few of which I had heard of, and fewer of which I could imagine joining. Tables for the Native American Law Students Association, Zoroastrian Organization, College Libertarians, Association of Black Accountants, Epidemiology Student Organization, Chinese Conversation Club, Equestrian Team, and Persian Cultural Society lined the sidewalks, as crowded in space as they were scattered in mission. Meanwhile goths in black trench coats smoked cigarettes on the building steps while fraternity boys in shorts threw Frisbees on the lawn. Pondering so many people so unlike me, I saw not only that my life was not the norm, but that no one’s life is. Each person is a misfit and minority in the zoo of humanity. No one is out of place, because everyone is.
Most prejudice is not malice but ignorance. My encounters with actual people negated the errors of abstraction. One night at the supermarket my freshman year, I watched two gay men discuss what cereal to buy for breakfast. Having known few openly gay people growing up, I felt somehow surprised by the mundane normalcy of their lives. Analyzing why, I reflected that the term homosexuals had implied to me people wholly defined by their sexuality. Society classifies gays, like other minorities, by what makes them different, yet those very classifications exaggerate the difference by obscuring the vastly more numerous similarities. Most of the time gay people are not “homosexuals” but grocery shoppers, dog owners, store managers, graduate students, gardeners, or moviegoers, no more nor less “sexual” than anyone else. To label them is to judge a book not so much by its cover as by its footnote.
Moralists teach respect of differences, but I didn’t so much learn that lesson as learn that all differences conceal inward similarity. Donating blood at campus blood drives, I invariably shared the room with a mix of races. I would watch the red blood trickling from the pale or pigmented arms, a science lesson that contrasting skins bleed identical colors. I pictured within all our bodies matching cornucopias of pink livers, green gallbladders, and purple intestines wrapped in yellow tissues. Where in the strange rainbow world within us is there any distinction of race? Peel away the millimeter of epidermis, and who could tell a skinhead from a Black Panther?
Human equality is not properly a topic belonging to ethics but to chemistry. We are all interracial, none purebred, our bodies amalgamated from the great melting pot of matter. Atoms of the dead of every race mix in the earth and are recycled into new generations. The particles in a praying Mormon’s hands may once have tilled the soil in a Navajo farmer’s. An Alabama sorority girl may blush with the cheek atoms of her ancestor’s slave. Who says the flesh is perishable? After we die, our dust will build the scaffolding of future consciousnesses. Our souls may or may not be immortal, but our bodies are undeniably immortal, eternally reincarnated in other bodies.
Like the molecules of our cells, the raw materials of our minds are hand-downs from past generations. To speak our private feelings, we must use a public language, not a syllable of which we invented. A loner’s assertions of individuality are hollow, for the phrase I am me is not his or hers. Misanthropes depend on humanity for the very words with which they spurn it. Similarly our brains would be bankrupt of knowledge if bequeathed no inheritance from history. In college I was astonished by the number of academic disciplines to choose from, each so complex that my professors could master only a fraction of its facts in a lifetime of learning. Still more astonishing was to think of the human labor required to build such a body of knowledge. Reading of ineffective ancient medical remedies or studying the geographical errors on a medieval map, I would reflect on how our thinking species was born ignorant into the world, and all our knowledge has been dearly purchased by someone’s experience. The vast pharmaceutical wisdom of modern medicine arose from the humble origin of early hominids eating poison and getting sick.
Looking around my life, I see in every material possession another emblem of my debt to others. What in my house can I say belongs to me? I eat vegetables a Nebraskan farmer grew, at a table a Filipino laborer assembled, beneath a lamp a French designer styled. Others are present in my most private spaces, for I sleep in sheets a stranger sewed. Capitalists talk of private ownership, but nothing is merely ours. Our possessions are our adopted children, most of unknown birth parents. Reclining under roofs we did not raise, driving cars whose seat belts we have not tested, we every day proclaim our trust in the nameless manufacturers of our goods. Capitalism is a communal effort.
One’s very existence is a product manufactured by strangers. Beyond my parents and grandparents, I would not recognize a single man or woman in the chain of ancestors that begot me. At a family reunion of my forebears, I would mingle awkwardly with great-great-ancestors who did not speak my language nor know a single fact about my century. Two of my distant progenitors, a Scottish Presbyterian and a medieval Catholic, might argue at mealtime over who gave the blessing, while a group of my pagan forefathers lit candles on the mantel to their idols. After dinner I would sit nervously on the couch by the family patriarch, a grunting caveman in mammoth fur. I am not like them, yet I am of them.
Tracing my family tree farther back, science says I am the distant cousin of creatures I crush underfoot when I walk through the woods. My people used to breathe through gills or wear their own fur for clothes. I owe my reasoning life to a mindless amoeba who split in two in the deep sludge of time.
Given my strange genealogy, who is a stranger? Though I would not ask them to dinner, I share a deeper bond than friendship with the people I pass on a busy street. My foreign cab driver and I emigrated from the common motherland of prehistory.
I used to think of the self’s borders as tight and secure, with a clear division between inside and outside. As a result I felt threatened by the great unknown of strangers, as if I were a walled medieval village under siege by barbarians. But knowledge is a muddier of pristine conceptions. Putting oneself under the microscope of reflection, who can extract the foreign from the native elements? The self’s unity is not the monolithic unity of an outcrop of mineral but the unity of a drop of ocean water in which thousands of minerals and compounds are dissolved. Nations seal their borders and stockpile arms against outsiders, but the outsider is inside us. To build walls against others is useless, for the self is a mosaic of otherness.
Brian Jay Stanley