Bill once knew a man married to a woman who believed she loved all mankind. She always supported far left candidates politically, voted the Democratic ticket, espoused extremely liberal causes with letters to various editors, and also appeared to be color-blind, gender-blind and blind to ethnic and religious differences. At Christmas time, likely with a warm glow of good feeling in her heart, she wrote out small checks (representing money her husband had earned) to fifty or more charitable organizations of all kinds.
Yet everyone in their social circle disliked her. She was neither kind nor generous in situations where she couldn’t play Lady Bountiful. A colleague with whom she had worked closely and productively asked her to write a letter of recommendation supporting his application for another, better job. She didn’t say she would prefer not to. She agreed to do it and then proceeded to send a letter trashing his job performance and inter-personal relationships at work. He found out only when he inquired why he had not gotten the job. Her husband invited to dinner a colleague of his own, of whom he was fond; she instructed him at the end of the evening she did not want this man in her house again because he was a messy eater and left crumbs around his dining-room chair. Although he was a college professor, she didn’t like his Brooklyn diction either. Her brother, and only sibling, broke off relations with her thirty years ago after she hounded him, over and over, about the alleged psychological imperfections of one of his sons. (The boy grew up just fine in the end, without the interventions of his aunt.) This woman, who her husband has now divorced, apparently continues to love all mankind in general, but ironically has difficulty cutting specific individuals any slack.
I recently met a journalist with strong views about what is wrong with the bottom-line driven, impersonal and inhuman first-world society we live in. At the time of our meeting, which was by appointment, he was particularly irate about the scripted use of expressions of human warmth in coldly commercial transactions, a context in which they are meaningless. Examples: “Have a good day” from the checkout clerk when you leave the checkout line in a supermarket, even at nine o’clock at night. “Welcome to Bank of America,” from a greeter whose job it is to welcome you to an institution interested only in your money and how much they can make from your patronage. “Are you still working on that?” from the apparently solicitous waiter who really only wants to clear you out of the restaurant so as to turn over the table to another customer.
Wishing these patently insincere remarks removed from the context of the marketplace, where they are neither expected nor wanted, the journalist had apparently also expunged them, and other gestures of courtesy, from the context of more personal discourse where expressions of human warmth might have been anticipated. No “Hi, how are you?” No “Nice to meet you.” No offer to clear a chair, covered with his coat and hat, for me to sit down. No offer to shake hands (although he did briefly take mine, as if reminded, when I made the offer), or to summon a waitress to take my order. (He had already drunk his coffee while waiting for me.) A meeting which might have been a pleasant exchange of ideas became stiff and uncomfortable as it went on in this vein — certainly for me, and I cannot imagine not also for him. Expressions counterproductive of good feeling when present in a commercial context had ironically become counterproductive of good feeling when they were absent from a personal context.
I’m probably not overstating the case to say many of us were glued to our television screens on November 13 and the days following. We were both stunned by what had happened in Paris and avid for every scrap of information concerning how what seemed unimaginable had come about and — far more difficult to untangle — why. But as the television reporters congregating there over the weekend and into the following week began to run out of fresh data from the police investigation both in France and Belgium, they fell back (as they always do) on the “human” angle, bringing us the testimony of eyewitnesses and survivors to perhaps revive flagging viewer interest with stories of blood and bodies and rounds of shooting helpless people on the floor.
Two of these survivors were a particularly attractive and articulate young couple, separated at the time of the terrorist attack on the Bataclan. He had gone to the bathroom behind the stage, so neither knew what was happening to the other. They held hands as Anderson Cooper interviewed them on CNN. She was blonde and spoke English softly but very well. He was dark-haired and spoke mainly French, but Cooper repeated the gist of his account in English. He had barricaded himself behind a door. She pretended to be dead, beneath the bloody body of a person who really was dead. She said each time she heard the gun begin again, she thought the next round would be for her. She also kept thinking, “I love you,” because she wanted to die with love in her heart. Cooper then asked them what they have taken away from this experience. She said she had learned on that night how important it was to live, to live every day, to appreciate every day, to love every day.
And there were Bill and I, immobilized on our sofa for much of the previous three or four days, watching this lovely young woman telling us to live, when ironically, we were not really living. We were just gobbling up a news feed about horror as if it were a kind of entertainment. We were not particularly appreciating each of the days we may have left. (He is nearly 88 and I, as you know, am 84.) We were complaining that the news (read “entertainment”) wasn’t coming fast enough. We were also complaining about all the commercials — for each of which I have to press “mute” and then “unmute” — while the sun shone outside and our own lives were slipping away a day at a time. We normally are not television watchers. What were we doing on the sofa?
So we took her advice, turned off the set and got up. We can find out what happens in the world in about ten minutes every morning from the Times. There will be lessons for the West in what happened in Paris, but one of the lessons it offered us, Bill and me — not a new lesson, by the way, but one which needs reinforcing every once in a while — is that watching screens on which other people talk about living life is not living life, even though (ironically) more and more of us think it is. That is even truer if we dolly back from the television screen to include other digital screens. The virtual is not the real. But that’s a topic for another day.
P.S. [No irony here.] Happy Thanksgiving to all!