Smelly Shoes and Self-Censoring
Left to my own devices, I love to think I’m better than other people, or at least different. Left to myself, I assess every new acquaintance with a way to position myself: above them? (always preferable)/ worse than them? (sometimes necessary)/ different from them? (at least an excuse not to engage; I’m an introvert.) Anything to allow myself to think of them as “other.”
I’ve done myself a slight disservice in the above paragraph. Although I do have this tendency, I regularly talk myself down from it because of a sacred experience in a shoe department, twenty-five years ago.
I was a clerk, facing a little lady returning used shoes. Store policy dictated reimbursing her. I had a strong opinion that the store policy was wrong. Anyway...
I’m shortish, but this customer was shorter. Her voice was scratchy, her clothes, haphazard, her eyes, small and piggy as she pushed the dented box of worn shoes across the counter. Her grammar was sub-par.
I hated her.
But as I looked at her squinty eyes, this thought presented itself: the odds were against this particular woman being alive on Earth. The odds were against her mother’s particular egg encountering one of her father’s millions of sperm, against her surviving birth and then living maybe fifty years on the planet, to grow up and return shoes at J. C. Penney. I had the further thought, that the odds of me being there to process the return, were equally astronomical. We were both individuals, arguably doing our ugly bests on this difficult planet. At the moment, neither best was very good.
I’ve come to agree with C.S. Lewis: there are no ordinary people. Every human has something that never existed before and will never exist again. How come I get to dismiss anybody? The moment has colored many subsequent encounters. I keep it like a lucky rabbit’s foot in a pocket, a reminder to hold myself in check.
We need each other. We need what the other person has to say, their point of view. Looking back, I’d say I needed that haphazardly dressed lady with the smelly shoes. The insight she gave me has sustained me through decades and occasioned this post.
We need each other. But that means putting up with each other. Store policy, and store policy alone, kept me civil in the face of those smelly shoes, but since then, what keeps me willing to listen to something I disagree with is the idea that the other person has a point of view, maybe even a point.
Nowadays it’s fashionable to lump people into categories and shut them up. Then we don’t have to deal with them except to hate them. On the other side of the coin, the same culture causes us to self-censor so we won’t be shut up, or shut down, ourselves.
Let’s talk about self-censorship. That’s what I meant to write about, anyway.
Self-censorship bites the tongue, infiltrates the brain and confuses the heart. You end up more familiar with what must not be said than with what must. Remember Winston in Orwell's 1984? When he had the blank page and the chance to express himself, it was primal: ugly letters spelling out “I HATE BIG BROTHER.” Not sophisticated thought, for he was out of the habit of thinking. Self-censorship will do that; it keeps every edgy opinion off the tongue and out of mind.
Of course, we make exceptions for good manners. “That dress makes you look like a truck” is, generally, the kind of thing better left unsaid. But some things need to be said, and not saying them is a sin of omission. The conversation that follows will be built upon partial truth - which amounts to a lie. The talks that survive are stunted, pruned trees deprived of branches that would have filled them out and improved their health. Public talk, these days, is like those trees – see illustration - it ranges from nasty to non-existent. On the other hand, private discourse in a circle of people of like opinions revolves around what everybody in the room already thinks anyway. An odd body of unbalanced, uninformed opinion emerges, either way.
Scripture doesn’t lie when it says “all men are liars;” it tells the truth when it calls the devil “the father of lies.” Untruth is everywhere and always has been. We can’t build a perfect world by censoring, or self-censoring, speech. That world would be like a sealed, germ-free bubble - no germs, but also, no hugs for the boy inside, and terrible vulnerability for him when he emerges.
We need each other; we need each other’s point of view, right or wrong, brilliant or misguided, wise or foolish. Without the possibility of lying, there is no possibility of truth. The genius of God was to give humankind – messy, unique, sinful individuals - free will. The genius of America’s founders was to make free speech the first item in the Bill of Rights. Both decisions have led to horrific messes, but without them, we’d have bubble-world. Sin and lies are not necessary to life, but the possibility of sinning and/or lying, is. Rick Joyner famously observed that an eagle needs two wings – a right and a left – to fly. We need each other, including those with whom we disagree. Maybe that’s who we need the most. Without two wings working together, talking together, the eagle stays on the ground.
Let’s talk to each other.
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