Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In Praise Of Elasticity

Intrigued but not wholly believing, I like to read my horoscope at the end of the day, to see just how accurate the dang thing is. Tonight's reading proved that today's was a bulls eye. It read: "Listen to a conversation on many levels. Look at facial expressions, consider the tone of voice and pay attention to what is not being said. You will see that there are many facets to what you are hearing."

Well, maybe not an exact bulls eye, but the gist is perfect. Without going into too much work detail, today, in my job helping people over the phone, I did a 180 in the space of about five minutes. Despite my best attempts to be non-judgmental and openhearted, I am human with prejudices. Those nasty buggers were getting the best of me at first as I talked to this particular person, but after listening a little more, I was able to dodge them and understand much better the real person I was talking to.

After years of working face to face with people--teaching, retail--I now work almost exclusively with people over the phone. And I love it. Facial expressions, body language, and just general appearances can certainly aid in helping to understand somebody, but they often can be a distraction at least and a mine field for prejudices at worst. I find that I need to--or maybe it's just really that I am able to--concentrate much more while on the phone, which enables me to understand better not only what is being said, but even, at times, what is not being said. Anyway, in this particular instance, and in dozens of others every week, my preconceived notions were obliterated, thankfully, by simply concentrating on what a person was saying.

Even before I read my horoscope, I was thinking about another short, though much more profound and "truthful" piece of writing: the great sentence that Herman Melville writes in his wonderfully compassionate opus Moby-Dick, when Ishmael, previously so freaked out by having to share a bed in an inn with the "pagan" "cannibal" Queequeg, reflects on things after getting to know his bedfellow a little bit: "Be it said, that though I had felt such a strong repugnance to his smoking in the bed the night before, yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them." Have truer words ever been spoken?

I think of all the things--people, especially, but also foods, music, books, locales, whatever--I've grown to appreciate and even love after first dismissing them, usually out of some stupid fear. I love the elastic metaphor Melville uses to characterize prejudice. What a world this might yet become if everybody could just meditate on that image for a while. We all have prejudices, which should be self-apparent, but the thought that they are so elastic, so bendable, with the instigation of just a little love, love or its vast components--compassion, knowledge, open-mindedness, etc.--is such a comfort.  

St. Herman, the patron saint of elastic.

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