On Familiarity and Contempt

Someone—reportedly that (possibly fictitious, himself) fable-teller Aesop—once coined the phrase—or at least popularized it:  familiarity breeds contempt.  With one exception (more on that later), I don’t think that phrase could possibly be less true. 

More than once, I have begun teaching a class of youth—maybe a Sunday School or Primary class or a group of deacons—and come away annoyed with them and their impolite, disrespectful behavior—to  the point where I wasn’t anxious to return.  But two things inevitably happen:  I get to know them and I start to like them.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever really gotten to know a youth and failed to come to appreciate them and become fond of them—and I’ve started out annoyed at quite a few of them!  For me, that initially unfortunate experience doesn’t just happen with youth.

I spent this past week out of town on business.  I wasn’t looking forward to it because I knew I’d be spending the week with a small group of people led by someone I really did not want to be around at all.  I had never actually had a personal or individual conversation with her (you’ll note), but I had been in meetings with her and knew her to be foul-mouthed, sour-faced, and terse.  My few interactions with her had completely turned me off and I was about to spend four long days with her (and a half-dozen other people I’d never met).

Well.  You can’t spend thirteen hours a day virtually locked in a room with a few people and not get to know quite a bit about them.  I met a highly educated young man who, with his girlfriend—now fiancé—is expecting their first child; a single Jewish mother of two teenagers who is under lots of job stress and worried about her kids; a single dad who spent his birthday with his teenage son and his (the father’s) girlfriend; and a woman who has a perpetual fiancé following failed marriages for each of them, no plans to ever formally tie the knot, and whose face lights up at the very mention of reality TV shows.

And then there’s Megan, the person I really pretty much despised before the week began.  Megan, it turns out, is an actual person pursuing life and happiness and family and fulfillment just like the rest of us.  She has a husband and kids that she cares about and frequently talks about.  She has a home she loves.  She has a personal history of success and failures (lots of successes).  She takes a direct, sometimes curt, but nevertheless sincere interest in others.  She goes out of her way to help people advance in their careers and in life in general.  And, yes, she has the foulest mouth I’ve ever spent more than a few minutes around.  But, by the end of the week, my contempt—bred entirely from both unfamiliarity and repeated personal failure on my part to not give people the benefit of the doubt—had turned into empathy and even appreciation.  Another of life’s important lessons learned, rather pathetically, yet again.  I hope I learn it well enough soon enough that I don’t have to keep re-learning it.

(I mentioned above an exception.  It seems to me that if there is any tendency toward truth with regards to familiarity breeding contempt, that it is within families where we are so familiar with one another that if we’re not careful, we can become complacent in our relationships, take loved ones for granted, actually lose empathy for them, and sometimes let our experiences with their shortcomings and the offenses we’ve taken from them canker within us.  You can tell you’re in danger when you notice yourself treating visitors to your home better than you treat its regular residents.  We must not stop seeking to understand others and appreciating their efforts—especially those closest to us!)

Longfellow said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”  It would be good if I didn’t have to wait to discover the “secret history” of everyone I meet before deciding that I can grant them the generosity, respect, and even appreciation that they deserve.  Giving people the benefit of the doubt, of which there is much where familiarity is lacking, is a happier way to live.

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