This week I was invited to a funeral.
I never met the deceased.
I never even knew any members of the deceased’s family. The son (I’ll call him “DeanWho”) was never more than an acquaintance. I am sure that when I used to see DeanWho – over 25 years ago – I sometimes said hello. I can also say that I once knew DeanWho’s friend (let’s call him “DarcyWho”), though I haven’t had any contact with DarcyWho for over a decade.
So I found it strange that I would have received two phone calls about this funeral. The first call was from DarcyWho and the second was from DeanWho.
Don’t you think that’s weird?
I think that’s weird.
Oh well. Looks like it’s time to make a couple of new policies of my own. How about this:
- I don’t return phone calls from weirdos, even if you leave me as many telephone numbers as you have.
- If I barely knew you twenty-five years ago, I probably won’t be attending the funeral of your mother. I probably won’t even send flowers or a card. As for prayers, well, that’s between me and my God.
I’m glad I’ve cleared that up.
Moving along, I’ll say a few things about weirdness in general.
The thing is, some people do really weird things. For clarity’s sake, I use the word “weird” in a negative sense. I am not here meaning just “unique.”
Weird behaviour surprises us because it falls so outside our imagination that we could not even have considered it for a moment. It doesn’t occur to us, for example, to think of each others’ heads as planets because, well, it just doesn’t occur to us. We find it rather astonishing, therefore, to discover that the hairdresser from several years back was worried that our planet was excessively big (bigger than his) and wanted to shrink it, using brush, comb and scalp massager thing.
Indeed, that would explain the strangest and most painful haircut I ever had.
Who woulda thunk.
Chesterton’s stories are full of descriptions of outrageous behaviour. Something happens and the reader cannot imagine what coulda happened and who coulda dunnit.
The missing piece is strange behaviour by someone with strange thinking and strange motives.
To take the simplest of examples, in The Man Who Was Thursday, there are several instances of people who seem, at first glance, to be very aged or crippled, yet who are, inexplicably, capable of running very fast. Things just don’t add up. The protagonist doesn’t see it coming.
And so it is in real life.
The normal person tries so hard to come across as intelligent, competent, healthy, polite, good and all-around worthy that he is entirely duped by the person who aims for the opposite.
But it happens.
Every day, there are people who purposely present themselves as less capable and complete than they are.
You don’t have to look very far.
I knew a woman who pretended to be really quite Helpless With English. It was part of her shtick, like the floral kerchief she wore on her head. She wanted to come across as holy and simple and wide-eyed and meek. So she’d screw up her writing. She deliberately misspelled.
Oh yeah and oh yeah. I kid you not.
I asked her about it.
I said, Hey, don’t have spell check on your computer?
We emailed back and forth. Her lies multiplied by the hour.
It didn’t take long for her to get herself quite tangled in knots. She confused herself entirely and near the end, it would take days for her to answer the simplest of questions.
She was obviously really angry at me. As a matter of fact, sometimes she got so angry that she forgot to add the misspellings.
She spelled the word “sincere” in every unusual way you could imagine: “sinsiere,” “sinceere” or whatever it was. But then she’d forget that her normal closing greeting spelled a related word perfectly right. There it was, as plain as day: “Sincerely.”
(Oh Wren: Not a very slick trick! Spelling errors are easy to make but difficult to fake.)
In the same vein, some people will pretend to be physically challenged. They trick people because the average person would never feign that. But you’d be surprised that there are advantages that some people enjoy. They like being the Little Old Lady who’d do nobody no harm. They love their gray hair and they stoop forward like this. Then they creep up to you, tap you on the shoulder and ask something nosy or say something bitchy.
You are stunned, while they hobble their way off to their brand new and shiny sedan. Oh yeah, there it is. I see it quite close. It’s the one displaying that Handicapped Card (Reserved Parking, a treat every time).
You don’t argue back and you don’t protest at all because, well, how could a Little Old Lady be anything but swell?
Ah, you novice!
Hey man, go whip out those Fairy Tales – I’ll give you an open-book exam. What disguise is most tested and true?
Hint One: What was the appearance of Snow White’s evil stepmother?
Hint Two: What was the appearance of the woman who introduced Sleeping Beauty to the spinning wheel?
Still works like a charmity charm.
So nowadays I don’t. I don’t answer questions from people if the questions are invasive. I don’t care how many wheelers or walkers or canes they got going. I don’t care if they are ‘smiling’ at me from that shiny wheelchair. If the question is out of line, then it’s out of line. Period.
I also don’t answer questions from waiters or waitresses who smile just like this and who are Just Making Conversation.
They sidle up: “So . . .
They smile as they casually ask: “What have you folks got planned for the rest of the day?”
Uh? And it’s your business because?
To such a question, I am tempted to reply, “Never mind. Whatever I’m doin’, it doesn’t include you.”
But I’ve never actually said that. My more typical approach is to ignore questions that I don’t want to answer, although sometimes I will refuse outright, saying that I do not answer questions like that.
When the bank teller asks me why I’m depositing so many cheques from various people, does she deserve an answer?
If the bank machine doesn’t need to know, I don’t see why she does.
For those who don’t want to leave a question hanging, or who don’t want to rebuff on the spot, I’ve seen other approaches. I once saw VigilantOne answer a question like that. Upon being asked what he was doing for the balance of the day, I think he answered that he was going to do
“Oh you know, This and That.”
Not bad. Vagueness can work, if that’s your style. If it is, there’s always this reply: “Oh, just some stuff. You know. How about you?” Use your noggin. You’ll develop your own Not-Answering-That style.
Some questions just don’t deserve to be answered. Don’t lie, but don’t feel pressured to answer questions that you don’t want to answer. There’s no requirement to answer every question that’s thrown at you. Consider Jesus at the tribunal. The man was silent, for the most part.
We need to drop this habit of being so Friendly and so Entirely Chatty and Perfectly Social that we find ourselves in situations where no question is off limits, where you are made to feel rude by not playing along. The current state of affairs is dangerous because it makes the well-meaning person feel awkward, upon being confronted with the Question that Asks A Little Too Much. And indeed, I think it is fair to say that it tempts people to lie. They feel rather trapped and caught by surprise, so they look for a cover; they dive into the bushes.
Instead, we need to acknowledge that not every single person will be prepared to answer every single question all of the time.
Not every single person will be prepared to answer every single question all of the time.
One example that comes to mind quite readily is the way adults ask all kinds of questions to other people (called “children”) expecting 100% disclosure, even when they met only 2 minutes ago:
“How old are you?”
“What grade are you in?”
“And what are you going to be when you Grow Up?”
Imagine reversing the situation. How about if the child asks the adult: “How old are you?”
How about if the child asks the adult: “What are you going to be when you Grow Up?”
(A loser? Oops – I can see that you already are.)
Yeah. The current situation is not entirely kosher.
And some adults really abuse the openness of children by digging for information when the child’s parents are absent. Teachers, for instance, should refrain from asking for information that isn’t actually necessary. “Where does your daddy work?” “Are you going somewhere nice on your family vacation?” “What kind of house do you live in?”
Whoa there horsey. Cool it with the questions.
Look: if you were REALLY making conversation, it would be about something you think the child would find interesting. It wouldn’t look quite the way it does. It wouldn’t look like some kind of imbalanced cross-examination, where the child is on the stand. Question, answer. Question, answer.
Don’t abuse the desire (of an adult or child) to be kind and polite.
And on the other side, don’t compromise your own values to score points as Missy or Mister Polite. Personally, I’m not going for the prize of Miss Congeniality. (You probably knew that.)
It’s not worth it.
Jesus didn’t do it.
Nobody confused him with Miss Manners when he went into the temple courtyard and started knockin over tables and splashing their cash here there and everywhere.
The man was angry, and it showed.
And while I’m here, let me say that the problem with our Canadian Ultra-Polite culture is that so often we go underground. By this, I mean that the disadvantage with a culture which is outwardly polite is that it can split the personality. You wind up showing the world one face, while the rest remains hidden. It can lead to dishonesty. You become so adept at being Perfectly Poised that you forget how to be genuine. You forget how to be yourself. There’s the Shiny Wee Tip, but the rest of the iceberg is quite lost at sea. Can’t even see where the rest of you went.
Not so good.
I’m not advocating that we be rude to each other, but I’m saying let’s call a spade a spade. What is so entirely wrong with being direct? Let’s take off the masks.
If you take off your mask, I might actually answer your question.
Don’t pretend you are so Casual and Cool as you sidle up to coo at our table.
Be straight. Say it like this, if these are your thoughts: “I know it’s none of my business, but I’m dying of curiosity. How come you’re dressed up so fine? A wedding? A funeral?”
Be yourself, in other words.
You are 100% more likeable.
And we might even begin to be friends. I’ll say to you, “You better believe, I ain’t goin’ to no funeral, not today or next week . . . ” We could laugh at the expense of DeanWho and DarcyToo. Yahoos.
But anyway, some people like wearing disguises because it furthers some ends that they like to achieve. Certain disguises cause others to lower their defences. We don’t like to be viewed as rude, and so we twist ourselves into all kinds of knots and actually get ourselves in more trouble than we should. We reveal, about ourselves, this that and the other thing, when we should have kept our mouths shut.
The disguises are successful because they go in a direction that others wouldn’t suspect. In a world where people want to be seen as capable, these deceivers deliberately want you to underestimate them.
But there are other ways of being strange and other ways of being bad.
Take, for instance, the practice of bribery. What is surprising about bribery is that it is practiced even in Canada. How silly of me that I didn’t expect it in a country that is generally affluent and ‘clean.’ But of course! A corrupt heart is prepared to pay for privileges and dishonest gain. Of course!
I had naively imagined that bribery was something that happened Far Off and Over There. As it turns out, it can happen on your very own street, and it can happen regarding things that are petty and small. Believe me!
People will give bribes to win prizes as insignificant as ‘nicest front yard in the city.’
Really! For something like this, they will sell off part of their soul.
It’s the story of the bowl of soup all over again. By this, I refer to the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Esau was ready to sell out – give away his position as first heir – for the sake of a momentary pleasure (bowl of soup). Jacob, who knew what it was worth, was right there to take what Esau neglected, what Esau rejected.
But this bribery and cheating thing happens all the time. Deserving students are deprived of their prizes because other students were flirting with the hormonal professors. Appalling and shameful! Oh, how I wish it would end!
Things which never should have started
I wish they would end!
I call them “weird” but it’s actually much worse than that. They are actually sins. Any form of deceit is really a sin. If you purposely misspell, as part of your I’m-Beyond-Daft trickster disguise, then you sin. If you hobble down the block, as part of your I’m-As-Crippled-As-A-Run-Over-Cat trickster disguise, then you sin.
And cheating is cheating, no matter how you do it.
If you wink at the prof in order to boost your GPA, you’re breaking the rules.
If you hint at some sharing of spoils in order to win that money-money contract, you’re breaking the rules.
And cheating is cheating, no matter how small the game.
Do you think that God doesn’t notice your deceit? If you sign your daughter up, at Track and Field Day as an 11-year old, when she’s really 13, do you think God doesn’t notice? If the organizer doesn’t ask for proof of her age, does it mean your deceit is a success? Or does it mean that your punishment awaits?
The thing is, God keeps track of everything. It’s not called Track and Field Day for nothing. He sees what you’ve done, mother of Leah, and he knows that other children were deprived of the prizes they should have received.
A good person is astonished that someone would weave such a web of deceit when the ultimate ‘catch’ is nothing more than a glossy red ribbon. A good person is astonished that someone would involve her own daughter in perpetuating fraud.
But it happens.
A good person, therefore, is entirely duped. The good person cannot fathom a heart which is ready to deceive, lie and cheat about everything and nothing.
Many believe that the ‘bad guys’ are all locked up in jail. They don’t expect, from their well-dressed and polite nearby neighbour, behaviour more devious and twisted than what was ever done by the folks on death row.
But please believe me: the blackest souls are not necessarily in jail. They could be running the local weaver’s guild, for that matter, and you’d never suspect anything at all. Chesterton’s stories aren’t as fictitious or as wild and implausible as you’d think. The ‘non-drinking’ jockey puts poison in another man’s glass. The mother and daughter team up for revenge against an unsuspecting father. An uncooperative cast agrees to cooperate on a coup of their selfless director.
It happens, and you don’t see it coming.
Mind you, when you look back, you consider the coincidence about the name. And you remember staring into those green eyes – Ah! That strange emptiness you couldn’t explain.
Sin is everywhere, Chesterton would say. It’s just in more places and hearts than you thought.
If you only knew!
If you did know,
You’d be entirely glad
The story doesn’t end there.
You’d be entirely glad
God sent his only son as a cure.
You’d be entirely glad
Christ will return
And the dead.