One of the saddest things about our American culture is the shallow veneer with which we gloss our lives– airbrushing out all that makes us human and real and photo-shopping ourselves into caricatures, mannequins. Mannequins don't have stories at all, and caricatures have only the gross exaggeration of stories, jagged scrawls of a plotline, devoid of real pain, real joy. We ogle the caricatures on the fronts of magazines at supermarket checkout lines with voyeuristic interest in their lurid scandals, break-ups, affairs, and the glossy sheen of their (short-lived) marriages and successes, but it is the same interest we take in the characters of Downton Abbey, or any other scripted television show (and sometimes the fictional characters garner more attention than the "real" caricature-celebrities. Anyone read some of the articles after Matthew Crawley "died"?) Tabloid headlines promise us "the real story", but what they really promise is a kind of pathetic comic-strip. We are a culture that has forgotten how to listen to real stories. Real stories of real people bore us. They are too tedious, too ordinary, too ugly, too uncomfortable, too full of the kind of stuff that fills our own every-day lives. We want to be titillated, entranced, shocked, horrified– we do not want to be touched, we do not want to be saddened, we do not want to feel truly or deeply, because to feel truly or deeply is to bring to light the immense neediness of all humanity, including ourselves, and our deepest horror is of being needy.
Is this part of what causes us to push each other away, to appropriate to ourselves the superhero's spotlight (because the superhero is the one who has no needs) and to consign everyone else a bland, blank supporting role– essentially a mannequin– as though all others existed merely to supplement our own existence, as J.T. Bushnell wrote in a recent Poets and Writers article. We cannot stand to acknowledge the needs of others because we are too busy protecting the dirty little secret of our own neediness. When we enter into the wounds, the tragedies, the battles of others, we risk bringing to light that we are not as strong, as polished or airbrushed as we want to be, that we too have our wounds, our tragedies, our battles. And even then, if we dare to let those things come to the light, it must be in a dramatic, glossy way– the kind of way that makes us look noble and long-suffering and heroic and strong. Weakness is forbidden. When was the last time you read a feature in a newspaper or magazine about someone's battle with cancer or racism or poverty that emphasized the person's weakness?
But there is another, darker side to our airbrushing of real stories, real lives, into comic strips. Even if, in our own lives, we manage to acknowledge the existence of real stories and real need– it is our own story and our own need that absorbs us. Learning to stop airbrushing our own lives is difficult, but learning how not to automatically airbrush the lives of our neighbors takes the regenerative power of the grace of God. We need to see our essential neediness– true– but stop there and we will drown in our own selfishness. How do we begin to see the needs of those around us?
I find, again, that Story helps. Stories literally humanize us– in perceiving the story of another human being, I am acknowledging their humanity and dignity (and at the same time their need, just like my need) and in that acknowledgement I become more human and less selfish caricature. When I stand in the checkout line at the grocery store, I tend to behave (in my mind) as though I am the only "real" person in the place. The woman in front of me is Obese. The cashier is Slow. Those teenagers over there are Annoying. That child is Cute but Hyperactive. And by airily assigning them their caricatured parts to play, I thus dismiss them all the better to focus on what really matters– namely myself– my own perfection or my own need, depending on which I prefer to dwell.
But what if I stop and ask myself– what are the stories that lie behind the outward appearances of these people whom I so blithely wrote off as unworthy of a second glance– suddenly I am moving towards humanity and humility. What battle might lie behind the face of the weary woman in front of me? What do I know but that it might be an act of incredible courage, or fortitude, or self-sacrifice, that she stands with her cart in the check-out line at Walmart? What wounds lacerate the soul of the cashier who is fumbling with the produce? What fears hound those teenagers into their jaunty flaunting? To ask what are their stories? is to ask what are their needs?
When we ask that question, we are close to learning how to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In some instances, like standing in checkout lines, perhaps I can offer nothing to to the needs of people around me but to see them as real, to "outgrow the notion that other people's existence merely supplements my own". To stop looking at the outward appearance, and hesitantly stumble towards the attitude of the Lord who looks at the heart. I remember, those short five months I worked in fast-food, what a difference it made to me when someone came up to order from me, and smiled and called me by the name emblazoned on my name-tag, when someone asked me kindly how my day was going. God forgive the selfish excuses I mumble about being an introvert and not liking small-talk with strangers, that have kept me from ever imitating that behavior when I am the one standing in front of the counter. It is not about introverts or extroverts– it is about seeing people as real, and seeing human interaction as an opportunity either to bless or to curse. Every time I treat a fellow-human being with disdain or even with total indifference, am I not defacing someone who bears the very Image of God?