Saturday, November 6, 2010

Just Behavior

I'm sure that you have memories like this one. I was staying for a couple rainy winter months in Seattle at the condominium apartment my brother had lived in while doing a medical residency. It had been sold, but would be empty a while before being transferred to the new owners.

One afternoon walking in the rain in downtown Seattle, I stopped to look in the window of a used book store. A man stopped also to look. I don't remember the details - this is now more than 20 year ago - but we found ourselves walking down the sidewalk together in conversation. What I remember is only this. He asked me about myself, what I was doing with my life. I told him that I didn't accept the people around me, and I was determined to find better people somehow, as long as circumstances allowed me to look. His answer was immediate:

- You're wrong.
- Why do you say that?
- What you are protesting against is not important.
- Why not?
- It's just behavior.
- I don't understand.

He was silent. What else is there that people do? I asked.

He remained silent. At the next corner he said he had to be going, and walked away.

Over the years I have often thought about this conversation.

What did these words, “just behavior” refer to? I decided they meant what we do when we lack integrity. They referred to ourselves when we fail to live up to our own character and settle down to being the character our friends and family expect of us. Just behavior is what we do when we aren't true to ourselves.

The right response to just behavior is to either walk away from it and look for life elsewhere, or to stay and fight, talk, argue, plot, do what is necessary to try to cause a return of that character. The latter may be impossible. It may not be impossible. It is the much disputed question whether people change. Or rather the question of whether people change for the better, since we all know people change for the worse. That may be the only certain knowledge we have of human nature, that time and education put an end to the beauty, playfulness, and perceptiveness of childhood.

To see just behavior, without taking your leave of it or waging war against it, then is a mistake. That was my second conclusion. If the behavior you name as just behavior is a failure to love, if you just stand there and look at it, without trying to change it or look for better, you too are doing just behavior, have lost your integrity, you too are failing to love.