“For what a person sees and hears depends a good deal on where they are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
Over the years of reading to our children, I read those words at least eight times. While we had many books in our home, the most read and re-read were The Chronicles of Narnia, all seven of them. For those in the “know,” it is “The Magician’s Nephew” that is the beginning, introducing us to Uncle Andrew, the magician, and to Digory, his nephew, and it is their opposing experiences of the creation of Narnia—one hating all he sees and hears, the other loving all he hears and sees –that brings the author to this observation.
Over the months I have thought of this insight from C.S. Lewis as I have read about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman, and now the responses from every different place and perspective. We do see and hear differently, deeply differently.
God alone knows what happened that sad night. One of the principals is dead, and the other has now been tried, and basically freed. I have no more knowledge than anyone else who has listened in, having an honest desire to understand enough to be a good citizen who cares about our common life.
As the trial took place, and the verdict was presented, I have been reading Tom Wolfe’s new novel, “Back to Blood.” Set in Miami, he offers a prescient telling of the tale of race and ethnicity in Florida, and America. The “blood” in the title is ethnic tradition, “my people,” and Miami is offered as the city of the future of America, teeming as it is with people of every blood imaginable who mostly don’t like each other, who mostly don’t talk to each other, who mostly have nothing to do with each other, in sum, who mostly don’t trust each other.
WASPs, Russian immigrants, Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Israelis, and on and on, each in their own tribes, speaking their own languages, eating their own foods, listening to their own media, seeing and hearing the world in a thousand very different ways.
There is humor and heartache, because it is Wolfe who is writing. And there are characters who sometimes are caricatures. But most of the time he has his finger to the pulse of who we are and how we live. Time will tell whether his “new journalism” is the same as being a great novelist, but over the years he has seen into our soul as a society, diagnosing us with uncanny accuracy.
From what I know of him and his work over many years, I don’t think he has very good answers to the questions he asks. In fact he once said to me, in response to a question I asked about “A Man in Full,” “I don’t finish my stories very well, do I?” I agreed.
The anger and alienation that are now the story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman has no cheap resolution. In the world of MSNBC and Fox News, explaining our days in deeply different ways, we have less and less ability to listen carefully to each other. More often than not, it seems that the more we know of each other, the less interest we have in each other. That is not a small thing, for anyone anywhere.
Social scientists who study societies understand that when social capital diminishes, everything else does too. When we don’t trust each other, nothing works. Marriages, neighborhoods, cities, schools, businesses, polities and economies. In a word, the society doesn’t work.
Seeing and hearing is not only a matter of “where we stand,” which does have consequence, but as Lewis saw, it is also a matter of the kind of people we are. Or as he writes, “the kind of person you are.” In the end, it is very personal—but because of the way the world works, that makes it very public too.