Who can tell the truth about a person? An autobiography gives access to someone’s psyche and thought processes, but is there anyone who thinks unfavorably about himself and would put his own life story in writing? Biographies have the advantage of a third person’s distance to the main subject. But then again, the author’s biases and motives add another layer to the original story. Besides, rarely does anyone write a biography about someone they don’t like or admire. Thus before anything is ever written, the author is susceptible to ‘partial blindness’, especially to weaknesses, faults, and embarrassing things that would reduce the value of the book or mar the perception of the said person.
Biographies and memoirs were not a big part of my reading list, until recently. While this genre is indisputably valuable, I have to remind myself that these people, whose lives are being told, are still human beings. Sometimes authors are capable of lauding a person so much such that the admired person appears somewhat like a demi-god, having an existence a little higher than normal people. Virtues are emphasized, but faults are downplayed or omitted, resulting in a picture of someone who is a little more perfect than the rest of us. But even these extraordinary people are subject to the tension between their inner heroes and villains.
I wonder what the contrast would be if, for example, two biographies were written on a person, one by an admirer and another by an enemy. Perhaps two very different personas would appear, each partially true. The admirer would likely be blind to the person’s faults, and the enemy to the person’s strengths. In contrast, the enemy would likely tell more truth about the person’s inconsistencies and impure motives, and the admirer the truth about the virtues. The real person is probably somewhere in between or a composite of these things.
The question then remains, who can tell the truth about a person? Is there anyone of us who can know and express the full reality of another human being, or even the reality about ourselves?
In childhood days, the world is simplified to us by stories, fairy tales, and the like. We generally have two bins for characters, good people and bad people. Heroes go in the first, and villains belong to the latter.
As we grow and examine these people in our boxes, we realize that they are far less one-dimensional than we thought previously. Sometimes heroes fail and do bad things, and sometimes villains have good intentions. The boxes come closer together, and perhaps, they don’t need to be separate at all. And thus begins a reconfiguration process that will last a lifetime.
In our own lives, we are the protagonist and everyone else a supporting character. As stories usually go, minor characters are assumed to be one-dimensional, and we are susceptible to treating some people as such. But then to our surprise, they deviate from the role they are ‘supposed’ to play, and we get “But you’re supposed to be the nice one?!” or “You’re supposed to be the mean one?!” moments. It turns out that incredible people have weaknesses, and sometimes, our antagonists are not entirely unlikeable either.
The reality is that every single person on the planet has a story in which he/she is the protagonist. We are all the heroes in our own storybook. And the fascinating part is that sometimes, we think of ourselves just as one-dimensional as the other characters. We are always good, and as the heroes, we will win in the end: “I’m the nice person in the story and I deserve good things to happen to me.”
Perhaps our greatest shock happens when we realize at some point that we’re not as pure-hearted and good as heroes ‘normally’ are.
People are not just good or bad. Each person has desires, motives, and ways of thinking that may internally conflict with each other. We are a composite of our selfish and selfless motives, good and bad deeds, successes and failures. There are times when I’m nice, and other times when I’m mean. We are both heroes and villains (or villains in denial), and two forces of good and evil are always at tension within us, no matter how upright a person may seem outwardly.
Perhaps, if we could just let people be people, accepting their strengths and faults combined, we could be more merciful when they make mistakes, offend, or disappoint us somehow. It’s not that we would excuse the behavior, but we would simply show more compassion to each other. Because it just so happens that not one of us is perfect.
Stolen from a book title by my favorite Indonesian author, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the title of this blog post captures the essence of what I consider my life personal statement, to be a child of all nations. I consider the entire world as a classroom and every culture a teacher. Since I have not had the privilege of traveling to very many places, books are my gateway to the world. I fight against the pull of insularity, with its ease and comfort, and I consider those who intentionally cross national and cultural barriers to widen their perspective as heroes.
My modern-day hero in this regard is Rory Stewart, a British author and Member of Parliament, who walked across Afghanistan in early 2002 and recorded his journey in the book Places in Between. He has also written two other books about his year working in Iraq and his analysis on political interventions in conflict regions, which are both on my reading list.
What I love about Places in Between is that it’s written in a factual way, detailing the day-to-day events during his journey without much commentary or analysis of the individuals and society he encountered. He meets individuals who are devious, truly honest, and a thousand shades in between, but he never passes a character judgment categorically on the entire society: the Afghans are such and such.
I firmly believe that in cross-cultural experiences, one should first and foremost take the position of an observer, and use wonder rather than critical thinking as the foundation of the encounter. Respecting the other culture’s dignity is paramount. Questions should be motivated by curiosity rather than criticism, and one should wait a great, great while before coming to a conclusion about a group of people and saying “The [insert nation/people] are [insert quality].” In fact, I dare say that kind statement is never true.
In this day and age, I find the sentiments that one location, society, or nation is emphatically superior to another really bothersome, including the times I find myself subscribing to such sentiments. To live is to ever learn, to stretch the boundaries of one’s experience, and to marvel at the complexity that is our human experience.
*A book I’m currently reading, which I’ll review soon, prompts this rather abstract entry, even though I’ve always held the aforementioned views. This entry also marks the beginning of me delving deeper into another side interest of mine: international affairs and women issues.
**Update (06/30/2012): Please find the review of the book I mentioned here.