Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Being with others

I'm reading 'The Art of Being' by Erich Fromm. One phrase practically leapt off the page at me the other day:

There is no contact between human beings that does not affect both of them

Two things really struck me about this:

The first is the word 'contact'. Why not 'meeting' or 'discussion'? I travel to work on the Bus and Tube (the Underground, or Subway for non-Londoners). I work in Central London, full of tourists in a building of a couple of hundred people. I will get around 10 emails, 5 or 6 phone calls and 3 or 4 'person enquiries' in an average day. I come into contact with a lot of people. Do I pay them any attention? Mostly not.

I spent a couple of hours last summer discussing the behaviour of Londoners on the Tube with an American friend of mine (this was about a month after the July bombings, so the Tube was on everyone's mind). She was a little bemused by it. In the rush hour, Tube users will stand in very close proximity to complete strangers, in complete silence, avoiding eye contact. I was trying to explain that this mental detachment (silence and avoiding eye contact) was the only way to cope (or avoid) the impact of such physical intimacy. Our standard 'Tube' behaviour has bothered me ever since and I think this is why. We know that mere 'contact' with others has an impact, we don't want to face it, so we minimise the effect as much as we can.

In a previous post, I talked about how scary it can be to realise that everything we do has an impact on others. But, the quote above made me realise that the people around me have an impact on me. It's one of those things that you know, but somehow don't. My accent changes depending on who is around me - I will talk with an Irish lilt, a little bit street, with perfect diction, with an American twang, a little bit posh. If I want to talk in an Irish accent, I'll hang out with Irish people, and so on.

But I never really think about the effect of hanging out with happy people, angry people, liars, people who hide, religious people etc., and how it changes me. I know it's easier to be God-focused around people who believe and practice, and the longer I hang out with these people, the easier it is to be that way (and maintain it). This quote suggests to me that I will become more like the people that are around me - I will tend towards them.

Given this, that I have contact with so many different people in a given day, worries me slightly. Obviously, I can assert myself so I'm not going to adopt blatent attitudes. But what about sutble ones? What effect will being surrounded by people who don't say 'Good Morning' have on me? Or people who can only talk about the latest fashions and what was on TV last night? Or people who only worship money and power?

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