When I talk to people the first thing I want to do is to get a feel for the kind of person I’m talking to. I want to know if the person is cynical, if they seem uncomfortable or if they carry nothing but the air on their backs. Most of all I want to know if I feel affinity towards them.
There are different kinds of soul in this world. By soul I don’t mean literally ‘the Soul’. I don’t think the English language has a word that denotes what most people mean by soul as the word is commonly used. This is one of the languages deficiencies, no doubt historically and culturally rooted. The problem with this deficiency at base is that we make judgements about people based on what we believe to be their ‘fibre’. But that’s another essay. It’s as if language just hasn’t caught up with meaning.
Some people seem to carry an air of freedom with them. It’s as if the weight of the world were less than a feather. These people are by no accounts irresponsible or lacking in depth. Nor are they necessarily extroverts. But, meet one of these people and get to know them and feel a lightness of being.
There are others for whom the world feels like a weight. For these people, again it is not that they don’t experience happiness or joy but, there is something heavier about them. Look into their eyes and you see uncertainty, sometimes deep reflection. Maybe they have fewer moments of joy, maybe the joys they experience are more intense. Maybe they just have ‘more going on’. I can only speculate.
Others seem to be innately cynical. These people are are nobodies fool, or so they would have you believe. These people I am most wary of. Not because they’re bad people but, because those first impressions travel far and there’s something of a weakness in needing to know before the finding out has been done.
Some people seem lost to the world, others consumed by it and some work to have a tight grip. Others take the world full on. In all the people we meet the sense of freedom we feel with people intrigues me. Freedom is a joy. It’s a sense that the world is open, not closed by uncertainty, but freed by possibility.
What I know for certain is when I feel affinity for someone. Some have had cheer in their eyes, others not. What they all have in common is generosity of spirit. Generosity can wane as we get older. Time becomes precious when most of it is spent. That’s one reason to choose friends wisely. Good friends will be generous with their honesty but, won’t strip you of your freedom. When you meet somebody you feel something for that feeling is important. It carries weight, is worth understanding.
Off the top of my head I can think of maybe ten people in the last few years I’ve felt a strong affinity toward. They’re the people I’d want at my funeral if life where such that I had a chance to get to know them. Yes, that’s a rather brash statement but, think in earnest about your own funeral. Amidst the faces there which would you hope to recognize?
Some I’ve had little contact with but, when I have they’ve reinforced each time my convictions in them. I’ve always been caught off guard. It’s as if a feeling I had, something so private were in fact shared. You’ll understand my surprise because I’ve not been in one place long enough in my life to know the kinds of friendship that grow consistently with time. That feeling, friendship is deep. Over the years as people from my past have reached out and remembered details of the time I’ve spent with them I’ve found myself carried back, smiling.
When I lived in England I was always aware of the type of woman, usually older, seemingly harried. They always have high spirits and profound anxieties. Hair tossed like they’d left in a hurry. I knew nothing of their life but, imagined that their mind was a flurry of thought with intense moments of concentration.
What struck me most about these women however, was that they appeared on the surface to be active. Whenever I met one of these women, despite their anxieties they were always doing something; planning a trip or getting involved in local life. Maybe years of earlier perplexity pushed them into acceptance that life is for living, maybe they just appeared harried because they were busy. It’s besides the point.
Of men get them alone in a pub. Catch a smile before the first sip of beer and you can be assured that the chap has a happy demeanor. I have one chap in mind who, pint in hand always had the rosy cheeked look of straight answers. And he gave them, with a smile.
There are other people I’ve met who it had seemed had a mutual respect. The kind of respect that makes you feel as if you’ve been welcomed into a club. In that club you have freedom, within the boundaries of the clubs rules, to be human. Maybe that was the appeal of a gentleman’s club in the past? Within the walls of the club society was unwelcome. What comes to mind is the Diogenes Club in the Sherlock Holmes stories. In Sherlock Holmes the club is described such:
“There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion.”
Freedom here is interpersonal, a feeling. The women alluded to act it and with that action are living. A guy with a pint and a buddy is free, he’s free to smile, joke and be himself. The freedom alluded to in the Diogenes Club is one of reciprocal respect.
But, there’s no escaping that these observations, for all their superficiality are just ways that people make us feel. Some people enervate and others make us contemplate. Some raise a sense of distrust and others we feel immediate affinity for.
I won’t pretend to understand the reasons why. Mixed in all of these observations are aesthetic, moral and historical reasons for feeling the way we do. A disarming man may be a happy chap or a salesman, I’ll let you make your own decision.
The question of ‘personality’ or ‘type’ has been begged for as long as we’ve tried to understand human nature or the ideal way of living.
Aristotle, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Hume… the list is endless. Most have one thread in common, that the nature of people will reveal something about the right way to live, be that moral or not.
Seneca (who died in AD 65) makes reference to weakness of character as cause for much of our unhappiness (in an earlier post there is a full quote I won’t repeat here).
Two centuries later George Orwell writes “One of the effects of safe and civilized life is an oversensitiveness which makes all the primary emotions seem disgusting“. For Orwell the symptom is social. He was writing about the Spanish Civil War and the lack of real information about what it’s like to fight. This is not the point. The point is that character and temperament are themes that people have used to expose something about life. Themes I believe obfuscate the freedoms that people can open in us.
Hume opens his essay ‘On The Delicacy of Taste and Passion’ with an observation of people who are “extremely sensible to all the accidents of life” and continues to make a formulated case for a more moderated way of life as a surer bet on happiness. I feel this misses an important point.
Schopenhauer’s scrupulous cynicism dismisses all but the most base motivations as deceit. Maybe he’s right. For Schopenhauer the only honest people are merchants (in On Human Nature). His point being that at base everyone only cares about money and the only people honest about this are those whose business is making money.
Freud in many ways echoes Schopenhauer. Freud’s entire theory is based on the struggle between the dynamics in the mind. Freud masks a morality in his science that isn’t hard to expose. He masks the morality of both Schopenhauer and Neitzhe. You only need to read ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ to see how clearly he does this when he describes men who’s sexual desires remain sublimated and weak, subservient to those stronger men who’s libidos enervate their power in the world.
In psychology personality is a big topic. I remember reading Hans Eysenck’s ‘Dimensions of Personality’ in college and feeling awe at the precision with which he schematizes human temperament along axis that delineate the types of expression emotions can assume. But, for all its elegance it is depersonalized. And it ought be. Eysenck was a scientist and he was not concerned with what it felt like but, what is statistically observable.
William James’s descriptions of kinds of person in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ are more resonant. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Varieties, from memory however, rather than make a case for a morality he looks at people for how softly or with what severity they experience.
In The Varieties it is the kinds of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feeling that he examines. With his examination he finds something essentially human in spiritual feelings, a quality of experience that is quite a part of our nature. As far as this essay is concerned it is this quality of feeling that I’m most concerned with. Something altogether foreign in a modern technocracy.
I’m not convinced that there is a right way to live. Living is a tough business and when we start to think of a right or wrong way we have a tendency to get caught in morality. Morality is a regress. It pulls us away when we get too caught up in it from many a human reality. Morality for its own sake is sham. When it’s not wise it’s prescriptive and wisdom is seldom dogmatic.
I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand if I’m good, bad, worthwhile and the net result for me has been quite a simple: “am I happy?” Where the answer has been ‘no’ the next question has been “can I do something about it?” or, as more has often been the case “do I know why?” Often the question has involved other people but, that too is a regress at this point.
And I suppose this is the point being obscured: character, personality, temperament; in many ways these are all a red herring. Attitude on the other hand is compelling. By attitude I quite simply mean a combination of outlook and will.
When I began writing this I had wanted to say something about the power that honesty and affinity for people can have. I had wanted to write that when we get bogged down in thinking about the moral fibre we loose something of what it is to experience affinity.
What I found was that what I wanted to write was something about happiness, the happiness we find in others. That happiness is not something that we can find without a certain attitude, one that is willing to be open and open to find what draws us in others.
This implies a certain willingness to tolerate a little uncertainty. It also requires kindliness. Something that is quite easily lost. Kindliness makes us vulnerable, as does openness. But for all the people I’ve met it is those who’ve had these qualities that have most impressed me. A smile can carry more weight than a word for a smile runs deeper. It is significantly more intimate.
There is a triad of attitudes that often get confused; cynicism, pessimism and skepticism. Of these cynicism is by far the worst product of the world today. It’s unavoidable in some areas of life such as politics but, then one only need reflect on how popular politicians are. One way or the other, cynics make for hard friends because cynicism makes the world closed to the possibility of genuine honesty.
Pessimism is profoundly stupid. In Social Psychology people can be referred to by how ‘risk averse’ they are. Without doubt we can’t walk around eyes wide open like fools falling at every opportunity. Pessimism however, refers to something altogether different; it makes a claim about the nature of the world and the abilities of men to change.
Human Nature may or may not change. The probability is that it won’t. But to let a global view of man effect how we relate to others is no different to letting the tail wag the dog. It prevents decent inquiry when a priori.
Skepticism on the other hand is quite unlike either pessimism or cynicism. Skeptics only beg the question but, that opens the mind. A healthy skeptic will inquire; between people that can breed honesty when probed with maturity.
We feel something about people when we meet and get to know them. Sometimes we’re wrong. But, nonetheless part of what we feel is affinity. Something of the spirit of the person can resonate with us. Look deeply and we feel we have a sense of their inner life.
No doubt some of us feel more affinity for people than others. Affinity has the kinds of characteristics that empathy has. Though usually we tend to mean that we understand something when we use the word empathy. Affinity has no such implication.
That sense of the inner life of others is doubtless a complicated concept. Philosophically speaking the sole idea that we can assume any kind of knowledge of others inner lives is so hotly contested it’d take a book to review the arguments. That’s not what this is about.
Quite simply I am avoiding morality, questions of character and all the obscurantism that miss what we can feel towards others. People draw us in, they evoke life, possibility and creativity. But, for that to be possible we need to be strong enough to be open and face people as ourselves. In so doing we see them. We may be let down but, that’s not to say we always will be. Either way we will find something out about ourselves and hopefully be better for what we find.