MEGAN NICOL REED
on understanding others
On understanding others
Sometimes just watching someone extend the hand of humanity to another is enough to restore your faith.
One thing sometimes leads to another. Last week I considered the hurt and the chagrin, the blow dealt, when someone you like, look up to, love even, says something, reveals an attitude, behaves in a manner so at odds with your own way of being in the world you cannot see past it, cannot recoup your former affection. Humans, I wrote, are always surprising. Sadly, though, as more of a glass-half-empty type, it did not at first occur to me to take my premise through to its natural conclusion. And if I had, if I had flipped that coin on its back, I would have seen that inasmuch as we are capable of throwing one another nasty curveballs, we are also just as full of wonderful surprises. Small ones: the dairy owner who lets you have the milk even though you’ve forgotten your wallet. Large ones: the elderly relative who invites their grandson’s transgender lover to Sunday dinner.
Growing up the daughter of a lesbian at a time when prejudice was plentiful, having two mothers was like a litmus test. I was careful who I revealed my home life to and several times misjudged terribly. There was a woman I worked for as a teenager, formidable, religious, conservative; I lived in fear of her finding out. I can still recall the potency of the relief that swept over me when circumstances forced me to out my family to her and she was as accepting, as nonplussed, as if I had told her my parents were birdwatchers.
I am left-leaning, a humanitarian, deeply interested in social justice. I prefer to think of myself as tolerant, broad-minded, and yet I can be a right judgemental cow. A reverse snob. I draw conclusions about the residents of my affluent suburb regarding the kinds of attitudes I assume they hold on politics, education, class, toward others with less, and often I am proven right, but often, too, I am shamefacedly wrong. More than once I have been moved by the pure kindness shown to other people’s children at sports days, children who do not have the luxury of a parent who can afford to come to cheer them on from the sidelines in the middle of a working day. Every year I am awed at the bags and bags of quality toys and non-perishables that flood in to the school office in the lead-up to Christmas.
I guess the surprise is always sweetest when it is someone you had written off as a jerk, a dolt, a narcissist, who takes you aback. The tradesman, who to all intents and purposes appears to be a beerdrinking barbarian, yet gives up half his weekend to mentor a boy whose father is in prison. The sullen teenager who stops to help the old woman across the road. It’s not necessary to be the recipient of the compassion, the beneficiary of the generosity. Sometimes just watching someone extend the hand of humanity to another is enough to restore your faith.
My friend’s confusion about the parents he adores, but whose homophobia he cannot abide, prompted many to write in with advice. I enjoyed Bob’s. “Like your friend’s parents, I’m old and I find it difficult to change viewpoints that were hammered into me when I was young, but as a father and a grandfather (13 and another on the way), I have learned while I should give my children my honest opinion, I should never let our opposing views divide us. I love my kids and my grandchildren totally, gay or otherwise, so please encourage your friend to put this to one side and continue to love and respect his parents as before. Life is too short to live with regrets and once they are gone it’s too late to be sorry.”
Rowan shared a fascinating story of staying with some American family friends. “For a few days they fed us, entertained us, showed us the sights and very much endeared themselves to us. The day before we were due to leave they took us to a local restaurant for lunch. At a table near ours was a young couple — a black man and a white woman. We suddenly became aware our hosts were watching this couple with undisguised distaste. They explained the problem with mixed marriages was that unless it stopped, there would be no “real” Americans left. They were stone racist, but otherwise good people … products of their environment and their time. Their racism was an anomaly, and it didn’t cancel out all the good qualities they had.”