It’s an apocryphal story that my friends, family members and students have heard too many times, but it was surgical for me in its impact over the years, and so I think it bears repeating.
I was standing in a long lineup for hours, waiting for a booth to open and begin selling tickets to a Bob Dylan concert. I had somehow been chosen by my friends to go alone to buy tickets for the bunch of us, so was standing as part of a group of strangers who inevitably got talking.
The fellow I talked with the most was tall, with an impressive mustache and bad teeth, engaging in a funny and oddly insightful way. He was telling me at one point about a co-vivant relationship between a professor friend of his and a younger woman, a relationship which soured with time. The turn of phrase he used caused me to laugh out loud at the time, and think more about it later:
“They were still at that phase where they were showing one another their good sides.”
Sad but true I thought. On that first date we are shining in our virtue, our willingness to behave in the most admirable, unselfish ways. Love blooms, issuing forth all manner of florid songs and poems about the very paragon of beauty and refinement that our lover is.
Fast forward to when we have been living together for a year, when all the foibles and flaws have been fully exposed. She now knows that you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and refuse to ever put a new toilet paper roll on the holder; you now know that she is a slob who leaves underwear lying all over the bedroom floor and spends hours every day on the phone with her mother. It’s an arc of change that indeed seems inevitable. We are many-sided creatures, and so, inexorably, we reveal all sides, including the dark one, to those who come to know us intimately.
Many years later, I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment, but I’d also suggest we can contend with the slide. We can resist the tendency to arrive at two separate standards of behavior: one for those who know us best, and one for everyone else.
The latter standard is of course the one we should aspire to, the one where we don our very best cloak of behavior in an attempt to make the best possible first impression.
It’s a daunting prospect, but the great American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. set down what are in fact some encouraging words in this regard. In the introduction to Mother Night, he wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
You see, there is the matter of will in this gloomy revelatory fate, offering what must be the most constructive strategy in the face of it. We can all go about pretending we’re still on that first date. In the grand (or not-so-grand) tradition of ‘What would ____ do?’, we can ask, ‘What would I do if we had just met?’
With sufficient effort, I’d suggest that—in stark deference to Abraham Lincoln’s inescapable maxim that we can’t fool all the people all the time—we can in fact fool most of the people most of the time. If you pretend to be a good person most of the time, happily, most people will think you are.
Here’s another relevant Vonnegut near-aphorism (the guy was brilliant at them), from my personal favorite of his books, Sirens of Titan:
“The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
So let’s be clear about the nature of the challenge here. The tough part is to go on pretending to be a good person around those people who know you well, who know all about your lazy, selfish side, who aren’t about to be fooled.
Regardless, there’s no getting around it now. This is your new charge, having unwisely taken the time to read this digressive post. You must now go about at all times pretending that you just met the person you’re with.