The Imperfect Shell


One of my favorite writers is the late, 20th century philosopher and Episcopalian priest Alan Watts. I ran across this passage a few days ago while reading his book “Out of your Mind.”

“Have you ever really looked at a seashell? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere-it’s absolutely perfect. Now, do you think the shells look at each other and critique each other’s appearance? ‘Well, your markings are a little crooked and not very well spaced.’ Of course not, but that’s what we do. Every one of us is marvelous and complicated and interesting and gorgeous just as we are. Really take a look into another person’s eyes. They are jewelry beyond compare-just beautiful.”

I highlighted the quote because it made me think of how hyper-judgmental and critical we’ve become of the “other” in our current environment. Be honest and raise your hand if, in recent months, you have “Liked,” “Shared,” posted or heard and agreed with any or a combination of the following sentiments:

  • They’re racists
  • They’re socialists
  • They’re coming for our guns
  • They’re destroying our Democracy
  • They’re Trumpers
  • They’re socialists
  • They’re Marxists
  • They’re bible-thumpers
  • They’re closed-minded
  • They’re intolerant
  • They’re taking our jobs
  • They’re idiots for not wearing a mask
  • They’re losers for wearing a mask
  • They’re hateful

I could go on, but I’d run out of paper. You can add your gems to this list.

My point is this: THEY is an abstraction, a convenient label that helps our tribe demonize another tribe. We can somehow feel better if we identify and belong to a group that ascribes to the same labels that we do. There is safety in labels.

But the truth is, I don’t know a THEY. I have many friends, some who read this blog, with whom I disagree on many, possibly most things related to our discourse. I don’t understand their thinking, and they surely don’t understand mine. Yet, somehow, we are able to look beyond the egos and the politics and the irregular markings of our imperfect shells. We are able to push aside the veil to see the “marvelous and complicated and interesting and gorgeous” person on the other side.

It has been said that we’ve never been more divisive than we are now. I totally disagree with that. The human condition is to be divisive, fearful, demonizing of the “other.” Americans have been divisive since, well, forever. Its just that today, our divisiveness is magnified 100-fold through 24 hour news and social media.

So, here’s my wish, naive as it may be. The next time you see someone in a MAGA hat or Black Lives Matter shirt, or listen to a news commentary about what THEY’RE doing, or feel compelled to automatically share/like a post about how THEY’RE coming for you, STOP. Take a second to think about those in your life who you may disagree with, friends, even family members. Look beyond their imperfect shell, to the true person you know them to be: marvelous, complicated, etc.

Maybe it will change the way you feel. Maybe not. But at least it’s worth a try.

A postscript: Lest anybody read this post and think that I have it figured out, or that maybe I’m pontificating as if holier then thou, think again. Four years ago I summarily ended a lifelong friendship with the father of my Goddaughter. I demonized him based on things he posted and the way he voted. Ending the friendship fed my self-righteous indignation. It didn’t feel good then, and it hasn’t felt good since. But I haven’t had the courage to call and make things right. I feel shame at how I acted, yet somehow convinced myself that he should call me if he felt it was important. It’s funny, Karl became THEY and I’ve regretted it since.