Last week, I made a whirlwind trip to get Chad from Penn State after his last final. By “whirlwind,” I mean eight hours up on Thursday, arriving at midnight, and hitting the road again Friday by 3:00 to head back.
I love road trips. I’m no college kid anymore, but I still love them. Travel of any kind reminds me how much is going on in the world beyond my usual circles. I really do think, every time I travel, “I could just pick up and travel — or even move — any time I want!” That’s not at all to say that I’m looking to move or that I’m unhappy or that I’ve got the wanderlust bug. New England is very much home to me, and I love my life. Travel simply reminds me of the many choices and options I have open to me all the time. And that helps me stay open to possibility where I am.
So, I had eight hours to myself on the way to PSU. I had my iPod loaded with all kinds of retro music I hadn’t listened to in decades (yes, I said decades). But honestly, I spent more time with the music off than on, enjoying the space to let thoughts roam. Or settle. In fact, one of the chapters I’ve already completed for the book is about the value of cultivating silence in our lives.
However, I don’t want to talk about the trip there just now. I want to talk about the trip back.
Often when people travel together, they listen to music much of the time. Or they take turns driving while the others try to catch as much of a nap as possible, between being jostled by lane shifts and using a wadded shirt as a pillow. This was not the case with Chad and me. We talked. The entire eight hours. I’m not kidding. And by “talked,” I don’t mean punch-buggy or the license plate game. Sure, we joked around some and shared new music we’d discovered; but a good seven hours of the eight were spent in real conversation about life. Stuff that matters.
At one point, we found ourselves talking about the meaning of normal. We all label others as “not normal” in many ways every day. I mean, it just seems obvious to us. He’s an odd duck. She’s too thin. He’s a little lazy. She’s super smart.
Chad and I came to the conclusion that what we really mean when we say these things is, “That person is not like me.” Think about it. Isn’t that what we are really saying? Aren’t we setting ourselves as the standard for what is to be considered normal?
By way of example, let’s talk about a towel.
That morning, before we had headed back from Penn State, I was getting ready to take a shower at Chad’s apartment. In the interest of packing light, I hadn’t brought a towel, so I asked if I could borrow one. Chad pointed to a yellow towel and a green towel hanging over one another on the corner of one of the doors, up high. “I’ve been using those, and I can’t remember the last time I actually washed them with finals and everything, but you’re welcome to use one of them.” He smirked.
Stop. Some of you just made scrunchy face. But why?
Chad’s roommate, also a friend, stepped in and offered one of his own towels. “Here,” he said, “use mine. I only used it a couple of times.”
You just made scrunchy face again, didn’t you.
The truth is, the towel I used was dry. Fine. Did the job. Wasn’t even stinky. So why the scrunchy face? “Because,” you protest, “that’s … just … gross!” But don’t you really mean that you yourself would not do it, and therefore it “isn’t normal”?
Years ago, I visited San Luis, Mexico. We had gone to bring shoes to a village where dwellings were constructed from junkyard scraps: tires, wire, cardboard. We could not drink the water there. For the moment, imagine that you live here. You own no shoes. You live in one of these single-room, make-shift houses with many views to the stark outside, where seams between the garbage that constructs your walls do not meet. Six other members of your extended family live here, as well, sleeping on the dirt floor.
Introduce the towels offered to me at Chad’s college apartment.
In San Luis, do these towels seem normal? No. But is it for the same reason that elicited your scrunchy face earlier? No.
In San Luis, one might wonder, “What do you do with it?” If you explained that you use it to dry water off your body after a hot shower, they would be no more enlightened. Shower? Hot water? And you do this ritual every day, sometimes more than once?
How odd. How “not normal” it all seems.
By the standards of most of the world, a towel is a luxury. More like magic. And if you do happen to own one, you certainly aren’t washing it after every use. Or every week of use.
Of course, it’s about more than towels. It’s about making value judgments on anyone for any reason. You see, the best we can ever really say without being egocentric is, “That person is different from me. They are doing this differently from how I would do it.” It is no worse or better. Just different.
I remember now what led us to this discussion. Chad had asked if I thought that, deep down, everyone really wanted to do the right thing. He was thinking specifically about a young man he had counseled in a prison. I suggested that the right thing can only mean the right thing as I define “right.” How can someone really want, deep down, to “work a nine-to-five job and earn an honest living” when they’ve only ever known selling pills on the street? When that is what his father sent him out to do in junior high school, and what made his father proud of him when he’d sell them all and bring home the money he collected? “A real job” would seem much like that towel would seem showing up in San Luis. “Don’t you want this towel? How could you not want this towel? I know that deep down, you must really want this towel!”
What the heck is a towel?
One of the chapters I have slated for The Best Advice So Far will be about treating people as people and not as props — as background features in the world of me. I think I’ll include some of the thoughts Chad and I shared on this trip. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we should have no standards in life, or that we should be moral relativists, or that we should not try to help people move beyond their current station. I’m simply saying I think we would all do well to remember that there are countless real and valid perspectives in the world beyond our own.