Last night I had one of our dearest friends for dinner.
That’s “have a friend for dinner” as the psychopathic cannibal Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins meant it in his closing line of “The Silence of the Lambs”.
I ate her alive.
Or, for those of a certain age like me who remember the “Point/Counterpoint” sketch in Saturday Night Live of the ‘70s, I was Dan Ackroyd to her Jane Curtin—the guy who responded to each ever-so-reasonable query with a weary, “Jane, you ignorant slut…”
Or to borrow an even older theatrical analogy, I played the game of “Get the guests” as savagely depicted by Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Whatever got into me, anyhow? On reflection while lying awake a few minutes ago—it’s 5:05AM just now—I realize that I got hooked. My purportedly civil manners in dialogue got sandbagged by an instinctual defense of our son, who in his early 50s doesn’t need defending by me or anyone else. The subject of our friend/guest’s query touched on his most recent accomplishment in environmentalism, and I sprang out of my senses when I detected a hint of skepticism being recounted. Or if not skepticism, I suspected a failure to understand it.
Just imagine. Our dear friend was quoting someone she read about, offering the other person’s point of view for discussion, not even endorsing it but simply wondering about it. And my response was to kill the messenger. Talk about a failure to understand!
A long time ago, I came to appreciate the dramatic difference that the phrase “I don’t understand” can convey, based on the tone of voice and feeling that speak the exact same three words. They can be an angry accusation, or an inquisitive confession. “ Jane, you ignorant slut,” or, “I am ignorant of what you mean. Please help me understand what you’re saying here…”
At that same long-ago time, I decided to think of the word “understand” as an invitation to stand under. That is: Be still, Eliot, and squelch your lifelong passion to be superior, to be right, and to seemingly have all the answers. Just stand beneath the other person, in curiosity and humility, to openly absorb whatever they might offer, based on whatever life experiences and impressions they have accumulated of which you are ignorant. With luck, you might even learn something.
I blew that chance at dinner last night.