I know it is fall, or as some say in other countries, the autumnal season. Trees shed their leaves, day after day. The last few days have been windy and it rained a couple of days. You can imagine what that can do to the few leaves that remained. I was stunned to see all the oaks, firs and birches totally denuded of their gold and orange leaves. Not a single memento of green I could see. I was looking at a forest of – not barely naked – but nakedly bare trees.
I was stumped for a while, but I walked. The trail was hard to see because a mountain of leaves covered the track. I had moments of doubt about the direction to take, but I continued and emerged successfully at the other end of the woods. I wasn’t lost.
So do people. Faces crease, hair turns grey, gait gets slower, eyes dimmer. Fortunately, something of the person’s core often remains. When you talk to your friend, you can feel a connection. The unique link you felt when you talked with your friend when you were both in school echoes in a strange way when you again talk thirty years later. Your friend too notices that link when he talks of his arthritic leg or a recent accident. He senses he still feels your core. He goes back and tells his wife, “I met my friend after thirty years and, you wouldn’t believe it, he is just the same.”
The strange thing is we act very differently when we meet strangers. Many of us don’t seem to bother about what is inside the person and focus on what is around and outside the person. What position the person holds, where he lives, what car he drives, what society thinks of him. Imagine that you are talking with five people in a room and Bill Gates walks in. The talk will end instantly, and all the attention will center on the celebrity who has entered the room. All will happily forsake what they were discussing so far and will hang on every word that celebrity utters.
Bill Gates does not have to know anything about what you were discussing earlier. His wealth and fame are enough to guarantee full attention from everyone, who will readily overlook that you were mid-sentence in explaining something important. It does not have to be wealth, it may be an exalted position in government, a business tycoon or a famous actor is enough to trigger the same kind of response. It is not the man but the perceived halo around his head, not the person but the accoutrement that is supposed to give him the charisma.
I remember having bought a sporty, supercharged BMW on a whim when I was a visiting professor at the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines. I was sorely tempted to sell it immediately when I found that some had started referring to me as Mr. BMW. A noticeable car had swiftly conferred an angelic ring on my pate that any of my meager capabilities had not merited.
That incident underlines another part of the problem. We pick up a small sliver of the truth about a person, the car in my case, and make that the whole or at least the principal reality about a person. It would have been wealth in the case of Bill Gates or genius in the case of Einstein. We would go no further and want to know the other parts of the remarkable person in front of us. In reality, their celebrity, for money or scientific achievement, becomes a screen that we allow to filter out the rest of their humanity.
I am not fame-averse. I would have loved to meet Gandhi or Mandela; they would be fascinating people to meet. I would also go to the window if Angelina Jolie or Aishwarya Rai was passing by; I am certainly not averse to beauty. It is quite another thing to act with abject servility whenever a movie star deigns to appear in public or to act demented with grief when a famous singer breathes his last. We are humans and it is to the humanity of our fellow humans, not to their celebrity, we better pay heed.
The woods near my Virginia home remain my favorite woods no matter that its trees are denuded of leaves, all the traces of green are gone. Those are the familiar woods to which I will go again tomorrow morning. A valuable friend remains a cherished interlocutor no matter all the creases on his face or even all the lapses in his memory. No matter their fame or celebrity, their credit or acceptance in society, a woman of worth and a man of quality I must consider worth recognizing and admiring to the last syllable of recorded time.