The Unseeable Persona
Walt Whitman Meets the Merchant of Venice
If I were to take the time to list the errors of my tongue and misdeeds of my days, the list would undoubtedly be long and dreary. No doubt, the list would resemble one which can be jotted down by any number of people. I like to think that my grievous errors of the past are something to be looked back upon but, of course, I know that I will look back upon these very days and notice offenses and insensitivities I either casually or unknowingly commit.
This is the long way of saying I never was, am not now, and do not seriously anticipate, ever being perfect. Sin crouches at the door – a phrase I know not only from the Torah, but from walking back and forth to the door so often.
Occasionally, I compliment myself with the thought that I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve only rarely had the inclination to do so. In any event, I am not as foolish or trite or terrible as … who? Who is it that I know sufficiently well to compare to myself?
What I do know, is that almost everyone I meet is sufficiently like me that in a moment of self-scrutiny and concern, I am able to see two points plainly. First, they are not perfect. But second, over time we do all change.
Transformation of our behavioral or moral stance might come about through a striking repentance, or a dull process of aging and maturation, or through an agonizing process of intellectual and ethical readjustment. Yet each of us begins doing things just a little bit different, a little bit slower perhaps, a little more conscientiously, just slightly improved, or disproved, than we did a month ago, a year ago or, certainly, a decade ago.
It is surely annoying when friends utter some statement which seems to pin us to the bulletin board of behavior we have assessed and discarded a while back. It is stressful when things which we have asked forgiveness for, having done or left undone, for ideas or plans we have devised or left unattended, for rash utterances to which we gave no special credence, suddenly surface with the attributed power of a world view. Can something said in haste define us?
Perhaps, if we ourselves later accept such pressured statements as definitive.
Part of the reason this is annoying is that we would prefer our friends be cognizant, if not of our internal processes of repentance, then surely the fact of our having matured. We expect a little more observation from our friends than from mere acquaintances. We don’t expect something we said at age ten to haunt us at age thirty.
It is ironic that a similar kind of stress becomes evident when people who do not know us, except on the most cursory and superficial level, make claims against us.
I am a male. I cannot automatically be assumed to exploit women, not to contribute to the nurturing of my children, be disabled when it comes to doing the laundry, and whatever else you think you know about men. ‘Male’ is not a code word. Nor is it a key concept. Can you not watch how I behave and treat me accordingly?
I am a Conservative Jew. It is a synagogue affiliation, not a political designation. I am not hesitating between the seat of orthodoxy and the chair of reform. I am not the Wandering Jew. I am not devoid of faith or hope or concern. I am not out of touch with contemporary life. I believe in myths, rest content with an unattractive heritage, much less an unspiritual one. Can you not speak with me and learn what I do believe?
I am a thinker. Have I not emotions?
I am a vagrant on the street. Do my clothes define what I have contributed in the past or may yet contribute in the future?
I am a Pacific Islander. Don’t you want to know that before you ask me, “From where in ‘Japan’ my family has originated? Don’t you want to know that I was born in Duluth before you ask me what country I come from?
I am a Native American. Don’t you want to know my views on alcohol and tobacco before you make accusations against me? Don’t you want to know what I do for a living? what my intentions for the future are? before you call me an alcoholic? a shaman or a pagan?
I am a Muslim. Don’t you want to know that I am philosophically opposed to violence before you attack me for being a fanatic?
I am an African-American. Don’t you want to know that I have a doctorate in physics? that I own a thriving business? or that ‘black’ is not a metaphor indicating malevolent and malicious inabilities?
I am a woman. Don’t you want to know that I have skills? wit? and intelligence? have something to contribute to society? a sense of humor? hopes? dreams? a personality of my own? and honor?
Don’t you know I have eyes? Don’t you know I have needs? Don’t you know the demarcation you impose upon me with such stringent measure is not me? not my ounce of flesh? but as a sign, a sign of your own limitations?
– David Schwartz
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.