I know I am, but what are you?

Well, yesterday’s unloading was an interesting experience. While I wish I could say that I feel unburdened or uplifted or something, I haven’t felt much different for having posted all of that, probably because so much of it has been circling around in my head for so long that it just feels like talking to myself some more.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got for questions 6-10 from the Vanity Fair version of the Proust Questionnaire.

6. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
The unwillingness to empathize.

There is a wonderful quote I’ve seen passed around, and it is of uncertain provenance. Some people attribute it to Plato or to Philo of Alexandria, but the most probable source is a guy named John Watson, who wrote under the pen name of Ian MacLaren.

Yeah, I don’t know who that is either.

Whoever wrote it, it’s a phrase that really resonates with me:

by Simon Walker, via Flickr

Human beings are not telepathic, no matter how much we wish we could be. We all live inside our own heads, acting out dramas that no one else is aware exist, and to each and every one of us, what happens to us is of paramount importance. You may be a cancer sufferer who just got released from twenty years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering your own wife, but that still won’t trump the fact that I missed the train this morning and had to stand while a bunch of elementary school kids punched each other and screamed for the whole forty-minute ride.

It’s not that I don’t think your pain is significant – it most certainly is – but I may not know it’s there. And even if I do, I have absolutely no point of reference to begin to understand how you feel, so comparing your pain to mine is pointless. Mine will win because, well, it’s mine.

Now this is the point where the sociopaths among you are saying, “I know, right?” Well calm down before you get all excited.

The mark of being an emotionally functional human being is that once you have that moment where you say, “I value my pain over the pain of others,” you then go on to the next step, which is to say, “But I’m going to act like that isn’t true, because that would make me a dick.” And that’s what we do. We hear another person’s story and say, “Wow, it would be really inappropriate and belittling to complain to this Iraq war vet with PTSD about how the barista at Starbucks never leaves enough room for milk when I buy coffee.”

And you shut. The hell. Up. Because while you cannot truly know what the other person is going through, you can know that it’s bigger than what you have going on. The real kicker is that, for any given person you meet, there’s no guarantee you will ever know what kind of pain they’re going through or what burdens they bear. No one is obligated to reveal that kind of information, and there’s no guarantee you could understand it if they did.

So I guess my point is this: you’ve gotta try and empathize with people, no matter how much you may dislike them or disagree with them. You don’t know the whole story, or what battles they’re fighting, so you’re not in a great position to pass judgement.

But there are people who actively refuse to do this. I had a colleague once who lived by the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” She met someone, judged them, and then that was that. Changing her mind was like shifting the Empire State Building with a series of precisely timed farts. I found that to be not only immensely uncompassionate, but thoroughly dismissive of the nature of the human condition.

There is a converse as well, which I phrase as follows:

Apologies to Mr. Walker. This one's mine.

I had some students last year who were on the American football team, and it was the center of their lives. There wasn’t a single activity or assignment that they couldn’t somehow manage to slip football into.

Now as you may know, I couldn’t care less about sports, and I mean that exactly as it is written. I don’t hate sports, because to hate a thing you have to care about it. If all athletics vanished from the world tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t notice it until the whole city of Boston up and killed itself.

So when one of these boys comes up to me the other day and says that he’d gotten to start in last weekend’s game and that they’d won, do I say, “I’m sorry, and I should care… why?” No, of course not. I congratulate him and shake his hand, not because I care but because he does. This is his victory – meaningless to me, but the world to him, and if our situations were reversed, I would hope to get the same in return.

Being unwilling to imagine the world from another’s point of view, to admit that your perspective on the world is not absolute, is basically shouting a big “Fuck You” to your fellow human beings. You don’t have to approve of everything someone does, or condone every behavior or belief, but you owe it to people to at least try and understand.

7. What is your greatest extravagance?
Comic books.

Calling it an “extravagance” makes it sound like I’m somehow neglecting other, more important financial responsibilities. And who knows, maybe I am. But if you take the word to mean that I spend more money than I should on something that is not strictly necessary, then yeah – comics.

This has always been true, too. Somewhere in my mother’s house are several long boxes with half a thousand comics in them. When I was much younger, most of my paper route and allowance money went into comics, no doubt to the unending consternation of my parents.

As I got older and poorer, I stopped buying as much, because somehow staving off starvation took priority, but once money started coming in again, it went out every Wednesday in a flurry of capes and spandex.

That… sounds like a lot more fun than it was.

These days, I have several shelves of trade paperbacks that still baffle The Boyfriend, and Thursday morning is the day I download the newest batch of comics from DC, who went digital last year. Good thing, too, as American comics are viciously hard to find here.

Why comics and not something more grown-up like wine or travel or high-class rentboys? Well… why not? I’ve known many of these characters longer than I’ve known some of my best friends. I like reading their adventures and seeing all the ways they save the world. I like watching how writers and artists reinterpret the characters, giving them new life and new meaning that their creators probably never imagined.

Simply put, reading comics gives me pleasure, which is pretty much the whole reason for having an extravagance in the first place.

8. On what occasion do you lie?
When the truth won’t do anyone any good.

I really don’t like lying. Whenever possible, I tell the truth or, in the best tradition of the Aes Sedai, something that is true, but not the truth the listener thinks it is. My general position is that the world is already full of liars, dissemblers, and deceivers, and I really don’t need to add to their number.

Having said that, there are times when the truth might not do any good. It might even be harmful, in fact. And I know this is vague and highly situational and useless as a guideline, but if the truth is only going to hurt people, then you need to carefully consider whether a lie might not be better. I can’t tell you when that is, of course. You’ll have to trust your judgment on that.

9. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My chewed-up nails.

Pity these don't work for humans.

I had a few good choices for this one – my thinning hair, the forty pounds or so of flesh that steadfastly refuses to just vanish because I want it to, teeth that really should be taken to a dentist one of these days. The glowing tattoo of the rune of Dagon on my forehead that hums an atonal dirge every eighteen minutes and causes children to cry tears of indelible shadow. But my nails were the first and last things to come to mind, so I’ll go with them.

I have been biting my nails since I had teeth. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, there’s a chance I’ll find myself gnawing away on my fingers. Sometimes I bite them ’till I draw blood, which is why I keep Band-Aids in my desk drawer. And that’s really not a thing to be proud of.

The thing is, I don’t consider myself a particularly nervous person, and I doubt anyone who knows me would call me highly-strung or overstressed, so unless there’s some giant ball of Freudian anxiety that I’ve repressed somewhere, I can’t say that I do it out of stress. It’s just habit that I can’t seem to break.

And gods know I’ve tried. I’ve snapped my wrists with rubber bands when I felt the urge to bite, but usually I can’t snap them fast enough – the realization of what I’m doing doesn’t kick in until I’m already doing it. I got that foul-tasting stuff you can paint on your nails, but again – by the time I think, “Ugh, this tastes terrible,” it’s too late. Besides, the human brain is a master at filtering out unpleasantness, so after awhile I would just stop tasting it.

Not entirely inaccurate...

I even tried putting on clear nail polish, with the hopes that the additional layer of enamel would provide some protection.

I stripped it off with my teeth.

Other than encasing my hands in gauntlets for the rest of my days, I’m really out of ideas. I just have to learn to either keep my fingertips out of sight or accept that they look like gnawed-on sausages.

The worst part is that I was able to quit smoking. That’s supposed to be the demon addiction of the modern man, and I beat that. But somehow my inner need to chew on my own flesh cannot be overcome. Dammit.

10. When and where were you happiest?
Any time I come home from traveling.

This is another question that I don’t really like, mainly because it’s nearly impossible to settle on one answer. Happiness is so highly subject to moment and mood and circumstance, and our memories of happiness can be altered with little or no provocation. Trying to thinking a single happiest moment is like trying to capture mist in a fishing net.

I decided, then, to go for a situation that never fails to make me happy, and that’s when I stop traveling.

To give a little perspective, I always thought the saying, “The journey is more important than the destination” was a big old load of stinky, stinky horseshit.

I like destinations. I like being somewhere. I like being able to be in a place and learn about it and discover it.

Only twelve more hours to go...

I hate getting there. I hate having to arrange for the time off, trying to create a schedule that jams as much activity into as small a temporal space as possible. I hate knowing that there’s no way I’m not being robbed blind on transportation costs.

I hate the constant feeling that I’m doing something wrong, like I’m just barely in control of what’s going on. For example, I can never shake that feeling like the Customs officer is going to open my passport and half a kilo of heroin is going to fall out. It feels like there are a thousand things that can go wrong, and I’m only even aware of a few of them.

And then, when I finally get where I’m going, to a place where I want to relax and catch up with people, there is always that knowledge in the back of my head that pretty soon I’m going to have to turn around and do it all again. There’s part of me that’s watching the clock, wondering if I’ll be able to make it to the airport on time, wondering if I can pack everything up efficiently to survive the trip home.

My nightmares are literally about this kind of thing. Being late for transportation, not going the way I want to go, not being in the city I need to be in. For me, travel is just a catastrophic series of clusterfucks that are waiting to happen. They just need one little push – a late taxi, a cranky TSA agent, a weak bladder – to come cascading down and cause me no end of trouble.

The day teleportation becomes a viable travel alternative will be the happiest day of my life…

All right, not quite as personally introspective as last time, but there are still ten more questions to go. See you there.

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One comment on “I know I am, but what are you?

  1. […] think I mentioned this back when I was doing the Proust Questionnaire, but I’ll bring it up again. The best part of any trip, to my mind, is when I come home […]

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