29 January 2014

No Mere Mortal

Back when I was in the Marine Corps, I spent 18 months in a military language program. In order to be accepted into this job specialty, you had to have scored high on the general military aptitude test, and a specific language-related one. The type of people that ended up in my field tended to be pretty intelligent, by and large.

There was one young man who was in the same program as I was. He was from Alabama and he had a country accent thick as mud. I had never heard an accent that thick in all my life. I’ve always enjoyed any and all accents and I never once thought that this would affect my opinion of anyone in any way.

Well it did. Despite being from a state that many people consider to be a bit of a back-water place, I don’t have much of an accent. Even my Texas grandparents only have a gentle West Texas twang. So when I found out that this goodly Alabama-native with his distinct accent was one of the top students in the graduating class—not to mention that his accent in Arabic was known to be excellent—I was surprised.

And I didn’t see why I should be surprised. I mean, I knew he was a smart guy. In my head, I knew that. What on earth had made me think that he would be anything other than one of the top students?

I knew, but didn’t want to admit, that the reason was because of this country/hick-ish accent (at least that’s what I, in my ignorance of Alabama regions, perceived it to be). This horrified me. I LOVE LANGUAGES, DIALECTS, AND ACCENTS OF ALL KINDS.  I paid better attention in class at University if my prof. had any kind of accent, because I'm a sensory creature and it kept my ears awake. And I abhor the fact that someone will work day and night to excise their native accent from their tongue so as to not be thought unintelligent or uneducated, when an accent has no bearing whatsoever on these things!

It’s a cultural association. In movies and television, a country accent of any kind (and, hey, most accents) becomes short-hand for rural simpleton or some such. Non-American accents become caricaturized, even when this isn’t always the intention. [British accents are the comical exception. The generic British accent carries the connotation of intelligence, regardless of what is being said].

Being what I was at the time—a translator—I mulled this over a great deal. I have a tendency to inadvertently don the accents of whoever I’m around, sometimes to my complete embarrassment as when one fellow Marine asked me “hey, are you from Jersey?” during a two-minute chat with him…because the curve of my words was slowly creeping towards his without my realizing it. [Uh…well, no actually, I’m from Oklahoma so…anyhow…]

I hardly ever do this on purpose and I have no doubt that it carries within it the great potential to be irritating or offensive. But it can be good too. When I lived in Israel I had a British roommate. When she called home, her mom [mum!] said she sounded a bit American, courtesy of me, and I had very unintentional smatterings of her accent in my English by the end of it. We had a good laugh about it. I was flattered to be mistaken for an Iraqi once by an Egyptian [Iraqi Arabic is my favorite dialect], and was thrilled to my bones when one of my parents’ Israeli friends looked at me all of a sudden and said I sounded like a ‘native Israeli who’s maybe just been living in the states for a time.’ Hey. I’ll take it!

So how could I, who believe so fervently in the beauty and nuance of regional dialect and accent, allow myself to tolerate some association of accent with intelligence or linguistic capability? The truth is, I still struggle with it. And the scarier truth is, it isn’t just accents.

I find myself making half-unconscious snap judgments about people—I have watched my mind form these opinions almost as an appalled outsider—from the most obscure physical or auditory markers, and also from some of the more stereotypical things too. What music they listen to. What they look like. How they dress (weirdly, I get leery if people are too well put together). What books they read. Even the tone of voice they are wont to use, and if they use internet acronyms in their speech (this is very hard for me).

Of course this disconcerting fact can come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the entrenched trajectories of racism, prejudice, anti-Semitism, stereotyping, bullying, etc. I acknowledge that this is not shocking or profound information. It just came through the most unexpected venue—a country accent heard by an Oklahoma native.

Yet that’s how we so often interpret the world into our own tongue. Or how we skim through people by short-hand, getting the gist, rather than reading them in full. Running our eyes over the back-cover synopsis, rather than giving the narrative and prose the chance to speak.

I come back to this idea again and again when I interact with people at random. I get Jeremiah’s fire in my bones when I think of how each and every person I meet is beloved of God, and how dare I write someone off as shallow, or uninteresting, or dull, or simple, or unfixable. He made them. They may be broken and fallen, but so am I and so have I been.

C.S. Lewis’s (really, are you surprised?) essay “The Weight of Glory” kicked me in the teeth and humbled me into trying to see everyone I meet with God’s eyes., (yes, even those ones that I don't like because they are like me enough that it grates. You know what I'm talking about). This task is so grand and so weighty, that it should put every one of us face to the ground.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors”


“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.”

So this is about 'average' people that I may only ever speak with once in a grocery store, or read about in a blog, or sit next to on the bus. It’s about the guy who looks like a thug, and who I think just got out of prison recently, who shares his love horses and riding, and surprises me. About the seemingly selfish and shallow girl who has a depth of passion and sensitivity that breaks my heart. About the person who is so different from me in culture or nature or mindset that it’s like stepping into a whole new world. About someone who loves some subject that I’m not even interested in and I’m reminded how simple and confined I am, in a very good way, because I can’t even understand.

I am not trying to idealize here. There will be people who are hard to get along with. Even people who act despicably, and their actions and choices cannot be excused. There are criminals, and liars, and schmoozers, and all sorts and there is no folly in recognizing that and being shrewd about those things. Yes, yes, “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about seeing people. I’m talking about the most average interactions, and people that would otherwise—were life a novel—get one throwaway line, or be cast to the side in favor of the main narrative (my narrative? Yours?). I’m talking about bearing the weight of Glory. It goes against everything in us that wants life to be simple and people to be easy and suit our tastes.

Goodness gracious, that’s what my pastor talked about on Sunday, and I just realized it. People are uncomfortable. Get used to it. That’s the body of Christ.

You have never, never, spoken with a mere mortal in your life. Ever.