“On almost every occasion when I have met somebody, I have met somebody else.” – G.K. Chesterton
“All real living is meeting.” – Martin Buber
When my dad was just a boy, his father took him to the TN Valley Fair. They were sharing a bag of peanuts and walking. His dad walked up to a stranger and offered some peanuts. He grabbed a handful. In a few minutes, they were swapping stories, laughing and becoming friends. My dad told me that story again and again and again.
It shaped my dad’s imagination and his actions: wherever he went he met people and made friends. During his final descent, we were heading to see a doctor. On the elevator to the doctor’s office, my dad started joking with the UPS man, and before we stepped off the elevator, they were both smiling and shaking hands.
I am thinking of my dad as I reflect on Chesterton’s apropos comment. In his autobiography, he recounts multiple encounters with politicians and writers who often disagreed with his politics and rejected his faith. Chesterton writes, “there is no substitute for meeting a man, even meeting him for an hour or two; it will always tell us when a real distortion of history or legend is beginning.” Chesterton encountered and even celebrated his political or religious adversaries even when they continued to disagree. For him, the person is bigger than a single idea.
He could see how a static model hardens around the image of the real person. The model is remembered while the real person is forgotten. This tendency to reduce people to one or two ideas is possible for each person we meet.
Martin Buber suggested that we tend to turn people into an object, an “it” instead of a person. We talk to the “it” instead of meeting the “thou.” The temptation to treat strangers and adversaries as objects and obstacles is strong. I want to be the person who goes out to meeting, who shares my peanuts with the stranger, who faces my adversary with grace.
Sadly, I’ve often done just the opposite: turning away from the stranger; dehumanizing the opponent. In the 1980s, there was a preacher whose words crawled under my skin. Every time I heard his latest pronouncement, anger burned inside me. One day his newsletter arrived in the mail. Someone apparently put my name and address on his mailing list as a joke. I couldn’t believe it. It made me mad just seeing his name in print.
Over the next year, I kept receiving newsletters. I read a few. His vulnerability and assessment of personal failures surprised me. Gradually I encountered the ambiguity and beauty of a human person: full of passion, marked by frailty and hunger for truth. I never agreed with some of his positions, but I discovered a glimpse of the wonder of his person. I found a way to appreciate his life as gift.
It seems like I must repeat this exercise again and again. My stubbornness often confuses the frozen shape of the public person for beauty and fragility of the living person. Treasures of glory in vessels of clay surround me: in the store, in the car, in the community. Even as I behold dried and crumbling clay, I want to pause and behold glory shining through the cracks.
Image courtesy of Ben Grey (via Creative Commons).