by Adam Pittman
I was talking to my friend in a coffee shop the other day about the way I see other people, or at least the way I naturally see them without any effort, like when I am speeding and another car pulls out in front of me, causing me to slow down for them. In those moments, I do not entertain thoughts about what motivated that person to drive that way. Instead, I react as if that person’s driving habits were intentionally performed to cause the maximum level of frustration to other drivers. What I realized, as I told my friend, was I never give a second thought that I might be causing another car to slow down for me. I assume whatever they are in a rush about can wait for me.
I know I am not alone in this self-absorption. We all justify our own actions while condemning the actions of other people because we understand where we come from, our own past and our motivations; we each are a catalog of memories, both of pain and love.
I once read a quote from Peter Rollins that stuck with me: “Each person is a universe to explore.” I am inexplicably drawn to the idea that every soul is unknowable to another person – your spouse of 60 years, an A-list celebrity on television, the Taco Bell cashier working the 2 a.m. drive-thru – and likewise, we are unable to fully comprehend ourselves. We may understand what drives us or other people: our favorite bands, our favorite restaurant, our pronunciations of “either,” the way we like our toast buttered, what makes us cry or laugh. Relationships are built on the knowledge of such things, but we, as human beings created in the image of a mysterious and boundless creator, are far more than our preferences and beliefs.
We understand the complexity of our own being. My friend told me a theory she heard that people are like works of literature. Some people are pamphlets, some sonnets and haikus, others novellas, others still are epics and novels. The person my friend heard this theory from, upon her questioning, said that he believed himself to be a library. I thought this was funny because I too believed myself to be a library, as did my friend. I do not believe that we are narcissistic if we believe ourselves beings of such vast complexity. The issue rather is in believing other people to be as simple and shallow as a pamphlet or haiku. We only catch glimpses of other people, but we hold court with our own thoughts every conscious second.
Prior to and immediately after my coffee-shop conversation, I read “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller. I mention this because the book is a beautiful questioning of what it means to love other people. While I was affected by this book in many ways, the most significant insight was perhaps the least expected. I came across the phrase “love your neighbor as yourself.” This time, unlike when reading it in my Bible, I was unguarded. It seemed to resonate with the room. What could possibly be more profound than those five words?
What does it mean to love yourself? Past explanations have seemed to glide over this question by saying that because we are sinful beings we are motivated by a desire to love ourselves only, and therefore we must turn that love outward to love our neighbor. I was never wholly satisfied with believing that we love ourselves only because we are sinful beings. If this were true, our experience of loving others would only come through knowing Christ, which is problematic because non-Christians understand love just as well, and sometimes better than Christians.
What does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? I find great complexity in this question, because there are times when I despise myself. The majority of my jokes, about 79 percent of them, fall flat. I would prefer to eat dessert over food with any real substance. I am my own biggest critic. I know my worst failings, and better yet, I hold the key to my own secrets. My relationship to myself is imperfect and full of more hate, bitterness, and rage than love.
So how can we love other people like we love ourselves? I think the literature analogy is fitting.
Have you ever read the summary of a book before reading it, then after reading it realize how poor the summary actually described the book? Have you ever tried describing your favorite book to someone? I have. It usually goes like this.
“So what’s the book about?” “Well, you see, it’s hard to explain. There’s this guy, and he’s a clockmaker, but it also has flashbacks to his childhood. And the book covers the relationships between two generations of father and sons in the same family, but the clockmaker is still the main character, and it’s really good. You should read it.”
I’ve found people, from the most exciting to the most average human being, are like a great book – full of tensions and complexities beyond description – but we only sift through and read the summaries. We are the greatest scholar to our own story, but to the stories of others we are mere browsers who are affected more by attractive covers and summaries than the story within. I think that when Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves, he didn’t mean that we should love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, but that we should love our neighbors how we love ourselves.
I am curious about what kind of place we would live in, what profound and progressive relationships we could have, if we started wondering about the people around us. Instead of seeing people by their party affiliates, cars, jobs, positions on a social issue, music choices, fashion choices or lifestyle decisions, we could wonder, in amazement and humility, about the smell of their childhood bar soap, relationships with their parents, how the grass of their backyard felt on their bare feet, how their tears felt on their cheek as their grandmother died, their first kiss, whether they regretted their first kiss, their view out of the bedroom window, the sound of their first car wreck at seventeen. We have lived only through our own eyes, through our own individual understanding, and we come to understand only why and how we live.
To truly love other people, to create relationships that are difficult and hard and worthwhile, we must seek the beauty in other people, as we search for the beauty and meaning in our own lives.
Adam Pittman is a Senior English Major and Just Sayin’ Columnist for Cedars. Among other things, he avidly enjoys reading, the outdoors, coffee, and soccer.