I met a woman outside the village shop. We had the vaguest of acquaintance to begin with, a greeting over her garden fence, but enough, apparently, for her to decide she had reason to enquire after my entire family and circle of friends before starting to dig up anything she could about my past. It was done with eager curiosity, a toothless smile and no malice whatsoever. The lady is elderly and lives alone; she may simply have wanted the company, or someone to talk to… and possibly something to talk about when she next met her friends.
Walking home, I had to think about that. I had barely arrived when a knock on the door heralded the arrival of a couple of fresh-faced evangelists. Their interest was solely in my religious bias, not even the state of my soul. They did not seem intent on my salvation as much as coercing my cooperation. Brandishing the Bible under my nose they instructed me to pray in a particular manner for Government on Earth by God. Their perception of God, of course, not mine; they had no interest in that. They quoted Bible verses as if I knew nothing, assuming that I would know nothing, and seemed most disconcerted when I could quote them too. They had no interest whatsoever in listening to my view, or even my responses to their questions, only in promulgating their own.
The little old lady was sweet and made me smile, even though her questioning approached the third degree. I parried her curiosity as best I could and listened to her ailments. Although I had a lot to do, I was in no hurry to escape her. The evangelists looked earnest and tired. I can imagine that they had not been well received by the majority of doors upon which they had knocked. They were pleasant enough people, but the blinkers of their fervour placed a barrier between us through which no personality was allowed to shine. I might as well have been speaking with automata.
When we meet someone it is natural for us to be curious, I think. We like to know who it is that we are talking to, like to know something about the person behind the face, the clothes or the front door. Yet our assessment of whether or not we like someone seems to be made almost instantaneously, based not upon a detailed background knowledge of their life story, but simply on the ‘feel’ of them. Body language, a look in the eye, a smile… the ‘vibe’ we pick up from them. And perhaps what they reflect back at us of ourselves.
There is no need to give the third degree and question the past of a friend, their life’s journey is their own and those who become friends will share what they choose, when they choose, as the moment invites. Much is shared simply by them being who they are, without need for detail and history; their lives and choices, good, bad and indifferent; their stories, trials, successes and fears have shaped and made them who they are and it is who they are that we care about. Not who they have been, who they might have been or who they may yet become. Who they are right now, in this moment that they are spending with you, that is what matters.
There is not one of us who has not made mistakes, triumphed over something, suffered embarrassment, given joy or caused hurt to someone somehow. No-one goes through life without writing a story on the pages of time, and all stories call upon the gamut of human behaviour and emotion. Our relationships with people are seldom begun with a knowledge of that story, we simply reach out and ‘touch’ whether a person feels right or not in that first split-second of meeting and our smile or greeting will be warm, absent or polite in response to that feeling… and we are usually right.
And if that first impression is enough, why do we need the inquisition? I have known and loved friends others have disliked; it doesn’t matter at all who was wrong and who was right in their assessment of a character, what matters is whether the friendship was true. We look beyond the surface with a deeper understanding than facts and reason when we exchange that first smile of friendship. We ‘know’ that person in a way we cannot explain and which may bear little relation to the facts of their life or ours.
My little old lady and I will now exchange smiles and talk when we see each other again. The evangelists, their own human warmth closed and curtailed by their mission, I would probably not recognise in the street if I saw them. It felt as if they had not seen me as a person nor had they opened themselves for me to see. I found that sad, an opportunity missed. It seemed as if in opening my door, a door had closed between us. Perhaps they are so used to dismissal or antagonism that their personal shields are up. Or perhaps they had simply looked and not liked what they found. Those first impressions work both ways.