Regularly, facts dispel my perceptions and/or beliefs. I discovered this week that the U.N. estimates that the world population reached 7.5 billion in April…and it’s growing. Despite all the death and destruction that I see on TV and read about online…the world population increases every day. I also discovered that the top ten nations (from a total of 233) make up 60% of that total; the top two—China and India—make up more than a third, with 1.388 and 1.342 billion each…but that number has grown since I discovered it! Vatican City, the tiniest of world nations, has a population of 801 (800 when the Pope is visiting Argentina) and has maintained a 0 population growth for decades.
These facts have made me wonder about the people I’ve met…how small is my circle of experience and how small is my mind that I seem to recognize people as “types,” not always really seeing the actual person. I see types...types of people I recognize as types, who I immediately lump into a genre and feel as if I know something about them. I’m afraid that it’s a kind of “ism,” although it isn’t meant as a derogation or a meanness…I think it is a defense mechanism against having to know and understand so many people. I know that's unfair but my brain rushes there, grouping people as types that I recognize, limiting the seemingly infinite number of people into a finite number of understandable types. I don’t lump people together based on race or ethnicity, but my mind grasps generalizations as a starting point. I see and quickly categorize: burly guys in sloppy NFL sweatshirts; polished and posing metrosexuals; nerdy women with funny haircuts; middle-aged women trying poorly to portray younger versions of themselves (with too much make-up and too tight clothing); middle-aged bald guys in khakis and blue blazer; ersatz athletes in sweatsuits that never experienced sweat. I wonder which type people reduce me to, based on my size, age, hairline, or clothes.
Then, very often, I’ll have a brief exchange of words—two of us in line at the Post Office or grocery store, or with a waitress in the diner or the old man behind the counter—and the type crumbles to sand. People one-on-one exhibit an infinite assortment of qualities and perspectives and values. I meet people who are, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, “so dumb they don’t even know they’re alive” and they struggle to find the words they want; I meet others who are so much smarter or more articulate than I’d expected and they spout out surprising jewels of perception; still others startle me with their anger or sadness or joy and how they wear it on their sleeves; I’ve worked with people who have no reason to lie and steal, and yet they easily do; I’ve worked with people who are so genuine that their honesty is flattering; I’ve met people who readily instill and share loyalty and others against whom I’m instantly guarded. People who love music and others who don’t know a note; people who can calculate huge sums and quotients in their heads and others who can’t count change; people whose hearts melt at the sight of an animal and others who are bothered by a bark in the distance.
All this begins to overwhelm me and I want to slip back into my protective “ism”…my defense mechanism…of seeing people in generalities, as types. If each person really is unique, if each person really has his or her own qualities, perspectives, value and humanity, then I am justifiably overwhelmed. While there may be 7.5 billion unique people struggling on the globe right now, it has been estimated that there may have been more than 100 billion people who’ve ever lived and the number keeps growing. So while my perception is that the world is filled with “types” of people, the facts seem to dispel that idea, insisting that humanity blossoms and is shared one person at a time.