When we’re in conflict with someone, we think we know them, at least enough to know what we need to know. Our certainty about their motives and their flaws — this certainty flourishes and makes us feel better about ourselves. Yet it is fantasy, this certainty.
It can be nothing else, for we cannot possibly know them fully, even loved ones. We don’t live in their heads. We don’t live in their hearts. We don’t live in their souls.
I was reminded of this by author Howard Mansfield and his exquisite book, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter. I met Howard recently, as he’s local, and it caused me to go back and re-read sections of his book.
In one, he tells about another local, Annie Card, a photographer who dropped everything to volunteer for the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. A year after Katrina, she walked Mansfield through a Pascagoula, Mississippi neighboorhood.
I look out to the Gulf, just for relief at first. The view from under the old trees to the silver-toned water is bewitching. I look down again around the foundation. Someone has mowed this lawn. Someone is tending this ruin.
Oh yes, says Annie. She came by here once, a few foundations down, and there was a man trimming the weeds away from his foundation slab. His house is now about three inches tall.
When I first got here, she says, if I had seen that, I would have thought that he was crazy. With all that needs doing, why do that? But she understands now: you do what you can to restart your life.
In another neighborhood, she was cruising with other Red Cross workers to see who needed help. Among the vacant, storm-wracked houses, one was in pretty good shape. A man stood outside watering his lawn.
No need to talk to that man, said her fellow workers.
No. Wait, she said. Annie went over and talked with the man. He was impeccably dressed. But the inside of his house was gutted— it was down to the studs. Each night he slept on a reclining chair. It was about all that he had. He needed help.
You can’t tell from the outside, she says. The houses may be empty, the people suffering, but the roses are in bloom. She tells me about a police officer, dressed in his uniform every day for work, while at home his family slept on the floor of their gutted house. He was too proud to ask for help. And she tells me about a minister, dressed in a neat shirt and pants, working to help his congregation. He would never let on that these were his only decent clothes, or that his house was destroyed. As in life, as in the aftermath of the storm: we can’t tell from the outside.