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The Difference Courtesy Makes

April 24, 2011

The boys are in the living room again.  They’re so utterly normal it’s surreal.  They drink beer and watch basketball on television and yell at the screen for every good play or bad foul.  I don’t really mind.  I just don’t get it.  But then, they probably don’t get why I’m sitting in my room on a weekend night, reading Buddhist Theology and writing papers (and sometimes, neither do I).

They’re Harry’s friends.  Harry is the guy I live with, though not in the “living with” sense.  We’re roommates, two utterly random strangers sharing a house for cost and convenience.  As roommates go Harry’s a good one.  I hope I’m the same.  We stay out of each other’s way, communicate on a congenial but minimum basis, and do small favors for one another.  My parents didn’t like the idea I’d be living with a guy, but it’s not the first time so they didn’t bother objecting.  Now even my Dad admits I lucked out with Harry.  He doesn’t even mind when they come to visit and stay with us for a week.

Harry and his buddies all have nine to five jobs, houses, cars, girlfriends and wives, kids.  Harry works at a bank downtown.  His sister Jenny, her husband, and their new baby live next door.  Harry and Jenny’s parents are five minutes away and come and go frequently.  Half of the time Harry lives the bachelor life, like tonight, hanging with friends or going out to clubs and casinos.  The other half the time he’s a single parent.

Nathan, his two and a half year old son, stays with us every couple of days and every other weekend.  He’s not a bad kid, for a toddler.  I’m not really into kids, but we’ve learned to coexist and Harry is really proactive about not letting him “bother me.”  I’ve lived here for almost nine months and he’s never once asked me to watch him for more than five minutes and that rarely.

We’ve begun to “color” together recently, which basically involves him scribbling on whatever papers are on my desk with whatever highlighters are in my drawer while sitting on my lap.  Nathan has learned to stop chasing my cat, Isis, whose name he mastered months before mine.  He’s still fascinated by her, but knows he can’t catch her.  For her part, she just sits and glares at him, always just out of reach.

I go to school every day and talk about helping suffering people, saving the world from climate change, and seeking enlightenment.  I read about obscure scholar monks from Tang Dynasty China, feminist interpretations of pastoral theology, and the Marxist critique of religion.  And I come home to Lakers games and Finding Nemo, to guys who never discuss religion or politics, and a kid who can’t even say either.  I ride my bicycle everywhere, shop at thrift stores, and never look at the total on the bottom of my student loan statements out of self defense.  Harry drives his BMW way too fast, takes Nathan to Disney Land, and spends time with his family almost every day.  He can’t imagine ever moving more than twenty miles away.  I moved two-thousand miles to be here.

The contrast is striking.  I don’t describe it to call either lifestyle into question.  Sometimes I think about it though.  It brings to mind the value of contentment, balance, and fit.  It highlights the variety of culture, even within a single society, and the vagaries of personality.  It teaches respect.  The more I learn about people who are different than me, the more I come to see the goodness inherent in all beings.  No matter what we do or how we do it, we do so for what we believe are good intentions.  In that, we’re not so different.

I read something today that said “persons with reactionary beliefs as well as those with liberal beliefs might with equal probability be closed-minded.”  I take it as a warning not to think myself better than anyone else just because the things I believe or the way I live is ‘right.’  That thinking is the path of a fool.

"Too much Plurbius, not enough Unum" sign. Photo courtesy of Huffington Post, from the Rally to Restore Sanity.

I can’t imagine living Harry’s life.  I can’t imagine ever wanting to.  Likewise, I have a feeling he couldn’t imagine living mine, though I probably shouldn’t speak for him.  In some senses our values are radically different.  I value my $20 bicycle far more highly than his $30,000 car, which, no doubt any sane person, Harry included, would find ludicrous.  But if you gave me that car, I’d sell it, pay down my student loans, travel a bit, and continue riding my blue bicycle. If you believe the rhetoric of media-America, based on that alone we shouldn’t get along at all.  I should be lecturing him about his carbon footprint and he should be telling me to get a job.

Yet in more important ways our values are perfectly in sync. We both value family (if not their immediate proximity) and friends very highly.  We value courtesy and respect.  I believe it’s those last two that are so vitally important – and so utterly lost to the talking heads that populate our televisions, newspapers, and radios.  Sometimes I wonder if those ‘difference’ makers gave up on manufacturing overblown dichotomies for even one day, we might look at each other for the first time and say “Hey, you’re not so bad.  We can work this out.”  But that doesn’t make for a good headline.

The boys are still yelling at the television in the living room.  When I go into the kitchen they say “Hey, Monica, what’s up?” just to be polite.  When they leave tonight, they’ll say “See you, Monica,” as they pass my room on their way out the back door, even though we’ve hardly exchanged six words today.  Some people might call that superficial, but to me it means a lot.  And when you look at the spheres of communication where we can’t even manage that level of superficial politeness because we’re so caught up being threatened by our differences, those simple greetings mean even more.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    April 25, 2011 4:33 am

    There are 100 Harrys in America for every 1 Dharma Cowgirl. Those boys in the living room are your bodhisattvas, there’s a lot to learn from them, especially when you’re living in the heady, wonderful, unrealistic hothouse of grad school. Almost every person you’ll minister to as a chaplain will be more of a Harry than a Monica. If you really want to learn to relieve suffering, you may want to spend more time out there on the couch, not just in your room. That’s the ocean of suffering beings you’ll need to know in order to offer a hand.

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