The ordinary soul of our changing architecture
The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven’t changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion.
Doris Lessing, The Sunday Times, London (10 May 1992)
Believe it or not, that was the first time I recognized that in some ways she was just like the rest of us.
Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember
I stare at my hands a lot these days, evaluating my changed and changing architecture. We can’t see our faces, after all, unless we look in a mirror and then we aren’t getting a truly accurate picture of ourselves. Look at a photograph and you’ll see what I mean. It’s all backwards in a photograph compared to our mental picture of ourselves — the mirror is our truth and it is not in a proper order.
We look out of our faces with no real awareness of how we look — twin, binocular cameras with film rolling as we view the world. People react to these faces that are mostly invisible to us (I can see the pinkish beige snub of my nose if I look sideways and squint; likewise, my excessively long upper lip affords me a flash of a view when I squinch my lips into a gorilla smoochie). This makes it easy to forget how old we are or how pretty (or not) or what color or size or any of the rest of it.
Only our hands inform us on a constant basis. My hands are bony, these days, with ropy athlete’s veins navigating across the tops and sides. I can see the pulse quivering in my wrist. I watch in fascination as tendons move and joints reveal themselves. They’re capable hands — artist’s hands, writer’s hands. These hands have created, crafted, loved, mothered, grandmothered, given pleasure and sometimes pain. They are hands of experience — the middle finger of my right hand is permanently grooved where I have held a pencil for half a century.
From within, our hands are what give us our physical individuality, although I can feel the changes in my face — from the weight loss and from age. My face is so much thinner and the skin under my jaw and on my neck, empty now of the pillowy softness that filled it out, has given up the fight. The skin on my cheeks, though, is smooth and tight, for the most part, thanks to a lifetime of sun avoidance and sunscreen.
This may come as a surprise, but we’re all perfectly normal to ourselves. We are the same person we ever were — as kids, as teenagers, as young adults, as “grownups” (whatever that is) and then, finally as elders. We are ordinary to ourselves regardless of skin color, eye shape, length of nose, curve or fullness of lip. We pilot this body around with no inner awareness of being “other” until somebody points it out by word or deed. We are all “other” to somebody.
But not to ourselves.
What if we approached all people as if there was no such thing as “other?” What if we saw only the working soul of the person in front of us, the one that gazes out of the eyes that cannot see themselves, rather than to the vehicle that carries it? What if we tried a little harder to understand that we all basically want the same things — a comfortable, sheltered place to live, decent food, safety for our loved ones, a good future for our children — and the only real difference is in how we’re trying to get there. It’s called empathy, y’all, and it’s the foundation of all the good things that can ever come after that.
Empathy is that exotic psychological bird that allows us to put ourselves into the place of another, to understand the validity of problems we would never have, to savor the joys that we are unlikely ever to see. It’s a bit of zen, a bit of common sense, a dollop of emotional intelligence, all cobbled together with the concrete of love.
Empathy for each other. Empathy for the world’s creatures. Empathy for the planet. What would happen if, instead of fretting and obsessing over our so-called differences, we approached each other with empathy? I truly believe that until we want for others what we want for ourselves (all of the above) with the same passion with which we yearn for it, we will not solve the ills that have plagued us for millenia (given humans apparently never, ever learn from our own history).
I believe that if we first begin with empathy, we just might have a chance. It’s not that big a risk if we try it. Without it, it’s the same old nasty-ass, endless, miserable same old we’ve had for most, if not all, of human history.
Let’s give it a shot, shall we?
This is dedicated to all those people of wildly differing and even opposing politics and philosophies who still come together with empathy to help where they can. I try my best to stand among you always.