Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Like Human Frailties

From Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  These guys are cute too, don't you think?

I like human frailties.  There are certain aspects of people that we sometimes treat as weaknesses, but that from a certain point of view are really endlessly endearing.  It's like, if we were the pets of some super-advanced race from another planet, these are the qualities they'd see in us and say "Awww.  Isn't that sweet?"

I don't know if it's because I  have a more extraterrestrial outlook than your average person, but I have that feeling about people a lot.  They act, and I think, OK, dumb, partial, not far-seeing, but  ... somehow really sweet and endearing in their humanness.

Humans -- at least the humans we live among right now -- are obsessed with self-improvement.  We're all about breaking bad habits, eating more fruits and vegetables, wasting less time on the internet.  We're pretty bad at it though.  Resolutions fail; self-help books don't help; a couple of months and we back in the candy drawer, munching on the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups while we look at Cute Cat Pictures on the web.

I guess there's a sense in which this is bad or discouraging, but there's also something so nice and reassuring about it.  I think what's nice about it is that the reason we keep going back to these things is that we really like them.  Our love of sweets, of lounging on the sofa, of cocktails, of YouTube -- it's obviously deep and profound.

And somehow it seems to me really touching and nice and sweet that among our deep and profound loves are things like foods, and idleness, and just playing around at nothing.  That humans, for you: loving, pursuing, and even being made happy by, the very simplest things.  It's like the sweetness of dogs when they understand they're about to go for a walk.  A walk? We're going for a walk?!  That is adorable, and it's nice, rather than the opposite, that we're a little like that too.  It's like the way people can't stay off their cell phones.  Sure, annoying, but hey -- people really really want to talk to other people, a lot.  Which is sweet.

I was reminded of this reading the New York Review of Books recently.  There was a review of a book by William Dalrymple called Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.  The reviewer, David Shulman, says one theme of the book is that among all the weird kitschy parts of religious practice in India there is also a lot of genuine, non-kitschy, religious devotion.

To illustrate, he tells a story of his own, of visiting a conference of veteran Yogis in Hyderabad.  He finds that these men, who he expects to have profound insights, instead obsess over the reception of various worldly honors and go on and on like chatterboxes with their own favorite platitudes.  He then says there is one exception, an old man who speaks with long silences between sentences, "as if, after all these years, he was still searching intensely for an important truth, which he may have glimpsed once or twice." He is really disappointed and saddened by the group and their worldly behavior.

I have to say, I had pretty much the opposite reaction to this story -- at least as it was told.  I'm thrilled to hear that when they get together, people who spend all their time reflecting have the same human qualities we all have -- craving love and recognition, liking to hear our own voices.  It's like, Yogis, they're just like us!  That's so much more life-affirming than knowing that someone who reflects a lot has to speak with long sentences in between, which in turn sounds just pompous and annoying.

So next time you're being irritated by some member of humanity who can't seem to get it together, try to take the extraterrestrial view.  Humans:  maybe annoying, but where would we be without them? It would be so lonely and sad.

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