How do you solve a problem like other people?

Allyn - Las Cruces, New Mexico
Entered on July 16, 2008

Last week, some dudes at my gym were making fun of a man I call the Weird Guy.

He stands shy of 5 feet, and sips Perrier between sets; his exercises, whether he snaps his neck back and forth or lies on his generous belly and flaps his legs, seem more like nervous tics; he even brings his own canister of antibacterial wipes to clean the equipment. I love watching him, but frankly he is a curiosity—unique, in a place otherwise overrun by sameness.

Anyway, the dudes sauntered in and, noticing the Weird Guy, made faces and doubled over in silent but snarky cahoots. What is this, I thought, junior high? Watching them, I was beset by two desires. The first was to engage the Weird Guy in ostentatious conversation, hoping to prove that someone was interested in him and accepted him—or at least to make clear my side when it came down to Us Versus Them. The second was to say something, anything, to make these guys understand how wrong they were.

I did neither. And I have since come to believe that my inaction in this tiny melodrama represents a valuable problem.

Greater imperatives than our own conscience ask us to be empathetic. Even the all-time depressive Arthur Schopenhauer requested sincerely that we greet each other, “Hello, fellow sufferer”—but I wonder whether this would work, when the fellow you are to greet has no conception of your pain, and probably no conception even of you as a person. Convincing him otherwise would be a task for a ghost, or Socrates, or God. And this leads me to wonder whether empathy—even decency—is too much to expect from some people. And this leads me to wonder, then, whether we owe these people these same favors—favors that certainly would not be returned.

Nevertheless, I also believe that there is an unequivocal right way to be—of which empathy is a crucial part. Even though no real harm was done that day, the dudes’ behavior represented to me a scary problem: the fear of people who are not enough like us. The cognitive dissonance that crops up when they consider the Weird Guy is too much for them to take—thus, they act out, and rely on stereotypes to get by. We have been doing this forever. It is very normal, and very stupid.

Which leaves me in doubt. Should I have said something? Or, is it OK to have said nothing? If so, why? If not, why not?

Even if I cannot answer these questions, I believe that my anxiety about them is valuable, because it has made me speculate about what the right thing might have been. It has made me want to be a better person. And I believe this is the least we can do for each other. We owe each other at least the trouble of our consideration. How else can we, fellow sufferers, become better than we have been?