This I Believe

Roy - Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
Entered on January 18, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I Believe in Opening Doors

I am a Russian historian. Teaching in a science university, students always ask me why they should study my subject. Why learn about the Soviet Union or the Iron Curtain? How will that affect their lives? In the end, I think that it’s all about opening doors.

I’m not talking about educational or political doors—I mean the real thing. Doors to class buildings. Doors to grocery stores. Doors to the office. I believe that we change ourselves and our society when we open doors for one another.

When I started to study in Russia during Soviet times, I remember the pushing: squishing into a subway car, pressing onto an escalator, or shoving through theater doors. No one seemed to open doors for anyone else.

Like the pushing, I was always surprised at the elderly women who took tickets at the opera—they seemed angry and responded only if someone swore at them. Yet these were the same ladies who, in their tiny apartments, would feed you the last of their eggs and milk. The ones who would bring down tiny crystal glasses and pour you a bit of stashed Georgian cognac. Why did Russia’s public face seem so different from its private one?

Vaclav Havel, the great playwright and politician, has written about dehumanization at the core of communism. Marxists governments claimed to know the end of the story—that history inexorably marched toward a goal, carried along by the great human masses. Yet relying on mass movements, Havel explains, left little room for individual people and their own stories.

I came to realize that Soviet citizens learned not to trust anyone they didn’t know personally. Better to be rude when you can’t discern who will tell you the truth and who will repeat the party line. This manifested itself through the blank stares, the nasty glances, and the great many shoves from behind.

Unfortunately, the pressures of our society can have the same effect. In rushing around for our job or our family, we’re likely to flash a middle finger or give a dirty look when confronted with another person. For years, my favorite gesture was the palms-up shrug that asks “what are you, an idiot?”

And yet, she is not an idiot. That person behind you has her own important, human story. So re-humanize your relationship: swing open the door, look her in the eye, and say “after you.”