“Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own….Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”
-from Straight Man, by Richard Russo
I have worked at a university for more than a decade and have come to see the dark humour in Henry Kissinger’s alleged observation that the reason university politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small.
It’s a funny little world, not unlike the small island I lived on for more than 20 years, with its own etiquette and intrigues.
And whenever I start to take it too seriously, I find it therapeutic to dip into a novel by, say, David Lodge, or Jane Smiley, or most recently, Richard Russo — that is, authors who can be relied upon to gently and humorously skewer the very academies that employ them.
Anyway, Russo’s 1997 book, Straight Man, about an English professor’s mid-life reckoning in the middle of a university down-sizing, was this month’s tonic.
(It was in fact recommended to me by my president, who has a terrific sense of humour about the ivory tower and its inmates.)
It’s a terribly funny book, which the quote above might not suggest.
But it’s not Russo’s smart-alecky (and sometimes downright snide) commentary on blustering and blister-less academics that lingers, but rather this small tribute to friendship, compassion, and forgiveness.
In the story, a colleague and sometime enemy of the narrator, Hank, has struck Hank’s dog and desperately seeks reassurance from the English prof that he knows it was not intentional.
Hank absolves his colleague in the passage above, defaulting to a technique he uses with his creative writing students to help them develop their written characters more fully: he is not the kind of man who.
The distraught colleague is not the kind of man who would hit a dog on purpose and then sit around and wait patiently for the owner to return.
I like Russo’s — or rather, Hank’s — notion that our true natures, so opaque to us, are so clearly revealed by the tiniest of our actions to those who orbit around us.
I like the idea that we can and must rely on and trust our nearest and dearest to alert us to our essential selves — for better or for worse.
It’s an interesting thought experiment.
Think about someone who has recently pleased you — or pissed you off. Your boss. Your spouse. Your neighbour. Your child.
What do you understand about them better than they understand about themselves?
And what might they be able to tell you about yourself that would be truer than you might ever care to know or admit?
You’re the kind of person who.
You’re not the kind of person who.