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Meetings

 

Jane Austen's original title for Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions. It's a study of the work done to undo some false ideas that took hold when the main characters met. That fateful first meeting set a tone, that set a course, that required heroic exertion on the part of Mr. Darcy to correct. It's hard work to fix a faulty connection.

Relationships begin with introductions. We surround these meetings with little ceremonies to keep them from going wrong, I guess. There are rules for introductions, formal and informal; there are hand-shaking do's and don'ts. Etiquette books used to specify who to name first, who was to be presented to whom, what titles should or should not be used. Too much for most of us to manage in these casual days, but a solid fence against offense, back when people were dependent on meetings to form acquaintance.

We form an impression when we meet someone. In olden times, we looked to see: are his shoes shined? (a century ago, scuffed shoes were a sure sign of an indolent individual); are her nails clean? (I'm an artist! My cuticles are usually encrusted with ink); do they look you in the eye? (But maybe they're shy). Now, in these days of connection via the internet, different things offend people: use of Comic Sans, or all caps, or failing to use an emoji or an "LOL" to indicate a joke.

We'd do better if we paid more attention to our gut and less to superficial stuff. (Yes, I know externals can indicate internals, but just go with me here.) I know the kind of things I've overlooked, to my own harm and in spite of clean nails and shiny shoes: a chintzy tip, a smirk in the middle of a tragic story, a feeling of having my arm twisted, all while the person doing the twisting smiled. You know more than you think you do, if you'll listen to your own gut. Maya Angelou said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them." A lot of times, your clearest view of a person is at the first meeting. If I pay attention at the outset, I save myself pain or at least wasted time, down the road.

Relationships are sustained by additional meetings. When I moved to Ft. Wayne, people made the ninety-minute drive from Ohio to meet my new house. When I got married a few years later, they made the trip to meet the man. They won't necessarily make a habit of it, but they will for the sake of the meeting. Weddings and funerals and baby showers and housewarmings are part of the fabric of meetings that keep us bound together in relationships.

(I'm bad at that part. I shy away from formal occasions. And the church "greeting period"--the 90 seconds where you're supposed to form a meaningful bond with the stranger in the next pew--is my idea of purgatory. I squirm, I go to the bathroom, I bend down as if to tie my shoe. If I had half an hour, I could make a conversation, but in two minutes I seem only to be able to stick my foot in my mouth. I think my problem is thinking too much about me, what first impression I'm making. The best meetings are redolent with the perfume of thoughtfulness, attentiveness. Ninety seconds is enough time if I don't fill it with my self.)

At any point in an acquaintance or a friendship or a partnership, we do well to pay attention and navigate the waters of relationship accordingly. "No man is an island," John Donne wrote. We need connections, we shrivel up without them. Babies raised without human contact waste away. It's our relationships that give us release from the box of individuality each of us lives in, and the relationships we build will determine the directions we grow in, once out of the box. The cliche of the high school kid whose friends are a bad influence on him functions because that kid grows in the direction of his friends. But then again, we all do. If Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet had not been fixated on the superficial, she would have read Mr. Darcy better at first meeting him. If we pay attention, serious attention, to the people we meet and re-meet we will fare well and grow in good directions.

 

 

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