Thursday, December 23, 2021


Listening to CS Lewis podcasts and reading their material, I note that the seem to be very nice people, and have wonderful things to say about each other with specific examples. It does descend into time-wasting fanboy material at times of how lovely it was when Walter Hooper invited them over for tea, but that is a complaint for another day. There does seem to be an unfailing graciousness for each other. 

Yet everyone they talk to or about is a literary-minded person: a writer, an academic, a researcher. Lewis himself wrote very little about such people in his books, though he spent his career with them.  He writes about his gardener, or RAF pilots he spoke to, or the church sexton, or people he met on the train. His graciousness extended beyond his set, and reportedly those of his literary set who were not his intellectual equal also. He loved discussion, disputation, argument with equals, but his every description of it is how convivial that all was. 

It is from Lewis I learned about the virtue of condescending, in the older sense, of the greater coming down to greet the lesser. When Plato writes he uses homely examples that even common people can get some grasp of. Jesus is the highest example, of God able to condescend and become man. It is a mark of greatness. We notice those who are rude and insensitive to others they meet who they decide are unimportant and consider it revealing. 

What to make, then of Tolkien being publicly more testy, even though he also carries a reputation for graciousness? When an interviewer asked him what makes Lewis tick, he replied "We are not machines. Human beings do not tick." Which is absolutely true, and perhaps a good corrective to anyone asking such a question to think more clearly.  Yet it is not very gracious. There are several similar stories about him.

I have met others who display easy graciousness to those who might be thought of as lesser - doctors of high reputation who would happily chat with those such as I, or learned clergy who easily explain difficult material to high schoolers.

I find I am context-dependent. I am quite contentious anyplace I feel I have to elbow myself in to be heard, and am impatient with those who will not engage properly in discussion.  This includes most of the blogosphere, especially other sites. You would not find me thus in person, even with people making irritating pronouncements that have no good basis. Yet there are live situations which reveal me as disputational as well, especially public gatherings where I consider the stakes to be higher, and particular bits of knowledge or points of view are getting short shrift and someone in authority is being too confident in their assertions. Because I know that others do not have the courage or ability to challenge these things on the fly, I consider it my job to do so. I was a thorn in department meetings.  At trainings done by people from within the hospital I was helpful and supportive. I would run into them after and they would smile and say "Thank you for what you brought up at training.  We have such a hard time getting that across to people." Those who came in from outside were often bearers of authority, bringers of new policies and obligations imposed from above, often completely wrongheaded, and always at least ill-considered in some aspects. Bureaucracy. Government. People who were not on the scene making policy.  My department supervisors were appalled and embarrassed when I would do this. A few explicitly said that "guests" should not be treated that way.  Yet they weren't guests, they were representatives of little tyrants, and being "polite" to them looked indistinguishable from looking afraid. 

I suppose the flip side is that one could view me as showing off. No one ever said that, but it may have been thought.

So gracious in some places and not in others. I was great friends with housekeeping and cafeteria staff because they were easy to know and did not bring other agenda. Administration, not so much.  Agenda, top-to-toe.


james said...

"His graciousness extended beyond his set, "
He seems to have had an affection for the "public house". I don't know what its culture was then (or now), but I suppose one might have become acquainted with a variety of people there--if so inclined. Sort of like church: all are together for one purpose; you can hang out with your friends or meet others.

Grim said...

I guess it’s more sensible from a British perspective to speak of condescension as a virtue. We Americans have a much sterner sense of social equality; even to suggest that you should condescend to your lessers is provocative at best here because it implies that you _have_ lessers.

Of course there’s a sense that an astronaut is superior to the meth addict living on the charity of others: virtues enable great things, which can include treating the weaker kindly. But then the correct virtue is magnanimity, not condescension.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Quite true, but we are aware of position within hierarchies, such as doctors, CEO's, majors, department heads, team leads. We know there are people who treat waitstaff as unimportant, or those who think better of themselves because of their income or education. It is very American to make less of this, and in informal situations, make nothing of it at all. It is one of our great virtues.