Friday, September 18, 2015

Mistaken identities

Most people have probably had this experience at least once in their lives. You are out and about, it might be in a place you know, or somewhere far from home. You suddenly notice someone near you, but with their back to you, or perhaps someone a short distance away but too far to see them clearly, but you are sure that it’s someone you know.

In your excitement you might call out to the person with their back to you by name as I once did, ‘Hey! Jody!’ and when the fellow (along with five other people in the store because I was so loud and abrupt) turned around to look, it was a completely different person. I wonder what I looked like at that moment. I pretended it wasn’t me and sheepishly walked past and away.

With the person seen from afar whom you think you know, it’s worse if you wave and begin running towards them, not so bad if you take your time and just approach, perhaps saying nothing aloud, till you are close enough to see that they are not who you thought they were. Perhaps due to your poor eyesight or their real resemblance to someone you know, you embarrass yourself.

You actually greet them and speak to them, only to find out they are not who you thought they were. ‘I beg your pardon! You look exactly like my college chum Larry! I’m so sorry!’ and after their quizzical look you quit their presence as quickly as you can, and escape into yourself, into nonentity. It helps if there’s a crowd you can disappear into, but if not, well, ‘grin and bear it.’

What is this all about? It is about mistaken identities. They usually happen when we are ‘too quick on the draw,’ using a dueling metaphor. Why we are too quick can be an innocent and light-hearted joy that unfortunately must be spoiled through no one’s fault. It can also be due to some human weakness in us, a shallowness seeking depth, but in the wrong way, time, or place.

Many mistaken identities bring with them a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering, however. These too often come from human weakness, shallowness, picture-thinking or vain hope. Many a marriage is discovered to be non-existent, an attempted mating between two people, one or both of whom ‘never knew’ each other, but were impelled by fantasy about the other.

One or both wake up one day and realize there is no marriage. For the tradition-bound, or out of economic or social necessity, or both, they decide that ‘that’s how it is,’ that they’ve ‘made their bed and now must sleep in it,’ and resign themselves to an unhappy life. If they’re religious, they console themselves with religious platitudes which they only half-believe, and they persevere.

That’s not what happens with the majority of modern people, who look for the slightest unhappiness with their imagined mate as a pretext to dissolve a union that, if they had really wanted or knew how to preserve, could have continued. But this example, marriage between mistaken identities, is not really what I am thinking about. What I am thinking about, is how we write each other’s stories.

It’s very common among certain kinds of people, to interrupt when another person is speaking, their minds racing ahead with a response or correction so impetuously that they cannot wait for the other to finish a sentence. They almost want to cover over what the other is saying. I say ‘almost’ when I really mean they do want to, but they’re completely unaware of it. They want to tell the story.

They don’t want to hear the other out, because they don’t believe that the other is a real person. The person that they know and believe in is a fabrication of their own needs, wants, or hopes. They want to rewrite any parts of the other person’s story that don’t conform to their expectations. Talking over someone is the mildest form of this delusion, that others must be who we want them to be.

Mistaken identity is, perhaps, one of the main reasons for most of the conflicts in the world at large and close up. As we gradually become aware that other people really do exist, and that they are usually different from what we think they are, and that the story they have to tell, whether verbally or existentially by their lives among us, if we’re honest, we begin to let them be.

We learn to give people room to be who they are, even if we don’t like what that is. This is where the Christian is put to the test. Do we obey the words of Jesus, or do we only say that we have responded to His call? If Christ has called us—and He has, because His call is to all people regardless of their state of life, regardless even of their religious beliefs—then we’ve chosen obedience to His commands.

And what are His commands? ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35). And what of mistaken identities? To love others, to want for them that which you want for yourself, is to begin to see them as they really are.

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