on un­der­stand­ing oth­ers

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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.”

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