June 27, 2012

I Know You: An Ethic of Meeting pt. 1

[Here are some chopped thoughts. Hopefully there will be a 2nd part to this soon.]

Meeting new people is an intriguing activity. For some it’s terrifying and for others it’s electrifying--in a good way, of course. It is somewhere in the middle for me, though I’m very aware the middle between terrifying and electrifyingly good is hard to place; it’s a vast space. But it’s true. And I’ve been doing a lot of it recently.

Many know but I’m sure some are unaware that I am currently in my third week of an internship at Eastside Foursquare Church in Bothell, Washington. Thus I’ve been meeting people, lots of them. And it’s good, I enjoy it, sometimes.

Someone I work closely with, after “knowing” each other for only a few days, said to me, while chipping away at our morning chore, “I didn’t think there was much to you.” “Oh, jee, thanks loser!,” I thought to myself. My superego and id compromised. I said something else. But it’s funny. What this person thought of me wasn’t who I was, nor am. So where did these thoughts of me come from? From where did this person based her conclusions? That’s what I want to know.

But realizations like this, but mostly on my part--as in, I’m the one doing the realizing--have been happening a lot and it’s because of the number of people I’ve met. I’ve been floored by how many times I’ve been wrong about someone; like really wrong. This has got me thinking about what it is to meet someone and how it should be done, the ethics behind this exchange. I wonder, is there a proper way to meet someone?

I’m not talking about what’s “seen”, the technique of your handshake or your introductory speech like, “Hey, what’s up, I’m Nick.” I’m talking about the covert, hidden and incognito, what’s taking place inside your mind. What’s of more interest to me is one’s preconceived notions, their judgments about ‘the other.’ Anytime two people come together, for anything really, things gets, well, complicated. Everything that there was one of, there’s now two; two personalities, two interpretations, two preconceived notions, two of what one thinks of the other.

But, how does this thinking-of-the-other come about? Where and how is it formed? Well, for starters, I can hear what someone says and the manner of their saying it. I can interpret that and configure what I think they are, what they’re like. But I can also judge someone long before I hear the words of their mouth. I need not a poem, song or spoken word. All I need is observation, to see them. I can make judgments based on their actions.

But all this boils down to a finer point, I think. We can package this together under a single word because words and actions don’t happen apart from a body. Essentially, bodies are the origin, they are what we have to work with, so to speak. They are what we see. They are what we notice and consider and judge. This can be a scary thought.

A new friend and fellow intern, Karina, a student at SPU, sent me a link to a lecture one of her theology professors spoke at Wheaton College--a young, mixed man, half black and half white. A quote of his from early in the lecture grounded itself in my mind, “My body was already doing work.” In other words, before he ever opened his mouth to speak and before he walked down a hallway to teach, his body was being interpreted. People were trying to understand him, organize his body and categorize him.

What do I think when I see a brown woman? What do I see when I see an overweight man?

In our culture where bodies can easily be divulsed from mind or personality and where people consume other’s bodies, we understand what it means to look upon a body or face and exegete it. We gaze upon someone and quickly, often without conscious oversight, draw out a meaning. Interpretation is almost inevitable and a second nature activity.

Most of what I “think” will be subconscious, not explicit. I wonder how easily I place some mental framework, my understanding of a person on them. This leads me back to what I said earlier: I’m usually wrong and sometimes surprised that I am. And this has been good for me to realize.

So what does it mean that I am usually wrong about people I meet? How should this inform an ethic of meeting (if such a thing is even necessary)? What part does someone’s body, if any, play in all this?