I stumbled upon someone recently who I had once thought of with disdain. The meeting was pleasant, even friendly. I do not think he ever knew how I felt about him, or maybe I imagined that, maybe I was just creating a fiction I’d prefer to accept instead of immediately confronting the jolt of shame that left me a little dazed.
One of the advantages of growing older is that you come to understand the worthlessness of a certain kind of mean spirited irony – the kind wielded in small groups of the like-minded who feel comfortable enough together to trash another’s style, choices, habits, actions … a life. I did that and way too often. When I was younger, and then, when I was old enough to have known better, I was still heady with what I thought was the quickness of my mind. I thought that I could see more than many others. I could understand more deeply. I could sift and measure the quality of another.
What a load of junk.
Some of that arrogance got pounded out of me; when you work with lots of smart people, at some point you learn to listen. I learned some things when I kept my mouth shut.
Then, of course, inevitably, the consequences of my Pride showed up on my street, growling, baring their teeth — and those creatures all looked like me.
Kids pounded some of it out of me. Most of the students I taught were brighter than I was. I had read more books and knew a few more tricks and I was big, but their BS detectors never stopped. Fool them once and they will not trust you again. Be a jerk and they will shut all the windows, lock all the doors and within their bunkers sit and stare at you as if you were a block of wood. No teacher can be successful if children recoil from him or her.
I remember reading somewhere that we in the West live in a guilt culture and that the Japanese live in one governed by shame. I think we might learn something from the Japanese. Shame has always struck me as being much more intimately tied to conscience – to be ashamed of an action indicates both an intellectual and emotional apprehension of the wrongdoing. We know in head and heart that we have done something grotesque. That double source of knowledge should make it harder to repeat the action.
I notice that I have more pity for others’ frailties and bad choices. My own weaknesses have never been more apparent; I have made enough stupid decisions so that if they turned corporeal, I could store them stacked to the ceiling — instead of nestling here, within my restless mind.
I’m glad that I felt myself flush red when I remembered what I had thought and said about the man who I only happened to meet again, but that remorseful heat leaves the skin quickly. Self- important pride remains the heedless, rash part of ourselves that we have to pummel into the empty room in the attic. It still gets fed, and it still finds a sly way to slip the locks and emerge … Surprise! … at a dinner or a reunion, in a casual conversation while driving, in a moment of anger. Better to practice the long pause as opposed to the quick, smart-ass remark. Better to remember my own failings before my creature pops out of the attic.