The time to make your mind up about someone is never. That’s what my father used to say. It is both an uplifting and depressing maxim as it means, in equal measure, that people can unexpectedly delight and disappoint. They can act out of character – or what you suppose to be their character. For one’s character is never neatly contained in a box, is it? There are aspects of each of us that make only an occasional appearance. From a rupture of rage rolled out on the tennis court to a frisson of frivolity let fly on a zip-line; we all have the ability to shock and surprise, even ourselves. I’m pretty sure my dad was not advising me to excuse bad behaviour, to remain friends with troublemakers or those who mistreat you. Rather, I think he was simply advising against writing people off; suggesting one fosters awareness that there’s almost always something held back.
Yet, the temptation to write people off can be both convenient and expedient, especially when we don’t like them anyway. Not to think any further about what might make someone tick, to dismiss the notion of there being deeper reasons behind their behaviour, makes it so much easier to brandish someone crazy, unhinged, or plain awful. Unlikely as we are to be able to work it, out these deeper reasons are, nonetheless, worth considering.
People aren’t ‘blanket good’ or ‘blanket bad’, everyone has something deeper going on, even if they very rarely show it to you or anyone else. The longer I live, the more I meet people who have told me about their multiple lives, of events and stories that have shaped them. I’m beginning to feel that I have lived a few myself. If your life has a touch of the drifter-vagabond, that quality of moving around every few years, then you’re bound to have acquaintances who know nothing of your past, as you will know nothing of theirs. Then, gradually, stories emerge, and you will surprise each other. I was at a seventieth birthday celebration on Saturday night; the best sort, a surprise party that was met with genuine delight and appreciation. I knew very few there, other than the youthful septuagenarian in whose honour we were gathered, but it wasn’t long before I got talking, and realised that the room was full of stories, layered up like a child heading out to play in the snow. “Everyone has a story,” C. said to me, nodding, as we veered back onto safe territory, not yet ready to share his. Perhaps he never will. It’s none of my business. But from the look in his eye, he had more than a few.
Ordinary People Are Peculiar Too, by Louis MacNeice
Ordinary people are peculiar too:
Watch the vagrant in their eyes
Who sneaks away while they are talking with you
Into some black wood behind the skull,
Following un-, or other, realities,
Fishing for shadows in a pool.
But sometimes the vagrant comes the other way
Out of their eyes and into yours
Having mistaken you perhaps for yesterday
Or for tomorrow night, a wood in which
He may pick up among the pine-needles and burrs
The lost purse, the dropped stitch.
Vagrancy however is forbidden; ordinary men
Soon come back to normal, look you straight
In the eyes as if to say ‘It will not happen again’,
Put up a barrage of common sense to baulk
Intimacy but by mistake interpolate
Swear-words like roses in their talk.