Who you are changes what you see

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what you see
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We didn’t expect to hear that from the waitress. My group of friends had the long table at the end of the restaurant’s patio. It included a priest, in collar. The lively, rambling, long conversation ran across politics, theology, culture, art.

I don’t remember what anyone said, except that we were all serious in that light way friends can speak with each other, especially when they agree on the central things. I won’t swear that it was entirely edifying, strictly speaking. It wasn’t a conversation meant for other people. (I wrote about this dinner here.)

Who is he?

After the priest left, because he had to get up early the next day, the waitress came over and asked who he was. A thirtyish young woman in a goth outfit, she had several tattoos and piercings as well. We told her. “I could go to his church,” she said.

She said she’d been listening to the conversation and then said something about his kindness, and noted the way he talked about the things we talked about. She seemed to be goth in her thinking as well as her dress.

As I remember it, she didn’t say much about what he said, and he’d said things I wouldn’t expect her to accept, but she felt drawn to the way he said it. I think what she meant is that he talked about the hard things in terms of the people affected.

Remember, he wasn’t speaking as a man being overheard by others. He was talking with friends with whom he could speak without filters. He spoke with his native kindness and care for people. He happens to be vastly intelligent and could talk theory with anyone, but he always talks — at least with us mere mortals — about the most abstract theological questions about God in terms of the people for whom the Son of God died.

He isn’t one of those warm extroverted ministers to whom people naturally warm whatever they say. He’s more Germanic and mathematical. The young woman had been drawn by his charity. And possibly, he being mathematical and Germanic, by his clarity.

Be people who see

It doesn’t always work out like that. Another evening, at the same table, but without the priest, we were talking away in the same way we had talked weeks before, when a thirtyish man sitting with a young woman at a table next to ours got out of his seat, took a couple steps toward us, and angrily asked us why we talked about such stupid stuff, though he didn’t use the word “stuff.”

He threw out a couple other insults, not only about religion, but the weight or seriousness of the topics. The friend nearest him apologized for our talking so loudly, though not for the subjects we talked about, which partly mollified him. He told us to stop talking about such “stuff” and clumped back to his seat.

I was sitting on the side of our table facing them, and I’d seen it coming. He was there with the young woman on what I took to be a first or second date, and he was not fascinating her. He did most of the talking, gesturing with his hands in a way that indicated a man talking emphatically. She mostly nodded and gave occasional short responses.

She seemed to be surviving rather than enjoying the evening. The odds against another date rose as the evening went on when she got interested in our conversation and started openly listening to us, turning in her seat toward our table, while still half-listening to him. She started smiling.

He didn’t like that. The poor guy was watching his date go south, and himself being beaten out for her attention by a bunch of middle-aged guys talking about “stuff.”

My father liked to say that where you sit determines what you see. It’s also true that who you are determines what you see.

I won’t say that on the second evening we spoke as winsomely as the priest, but we didn’t speak in a way to which anyone should object. The young man seemed to be someone who disliked religion and resented serious thinking. He wasn’t a person to “see.” His date apparently was.

As was the waitress. She offered an indirect tribute to the priest’s virtues, but also revealed her own. She had to listen, and listen to someone different from her across a cultural divide, and get past the visual and verbal symbols (that collar, those religious words) to hear what was really being said. She had to show real charity herself in order to hear charity.

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.