Beyond Lust and Disgust: Good Manners, Community, and Bodies
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My Christian friends tell me that many of Jesus’ teachings involve deliberate contradictions of received wisdom. Over and over again, Jesus will say something like, “You have heard this, and believed it, but I say instead the opposite.” Perhaps it’s not contradiction so much as elucidation, but it’s the classic rhetorical stance of the prophet. “You believe X, but I’m here to tell you, Y is what’s really true.”
The way we taught manners in my family followed that same trope. “Other people will tell you that it is acceptable to offer your hand to a lady before she proffers hers, but we think it better to wait, so as not to put her on the spot.” “It is true that middle-class couples like to sit together at dinner parties, but we think it ever much more elegant and fun to mix things up.”
You roll your eyes at the snobbery. And yet. The code of good manners is about much more than seating arrangements at a soirée. It is about how you deal not only with your own kind, but how you deal with people who play by what might seem a completely different set of rules.
“People think that lust and disgust are uncontrollable human impulses that you can’t help but express,” an aunt told me when I was just getting into my teens. “I think you’ll find that if you can master both, you’ll have a kinder and more interesting life.”
I didn’t fully understand what my aunt meant until the fall semester of 2002. That term, I had two of the best students I taught in my entire 20-year career: Jill and Ray. (Pseudonyms, of course.) They challenged me intellectually and personally, and they made me a much better teacher. In two very different but ultimately similar ways, Jill and Ray provoked me, and taught me to live more fully into the counter-cultural principles my family had preached.
Jill was stunning. She was gorgeous, and she almost certainly knew it; her beauty was practiced, it was calculated, and it was remarkably well-performed for someone barely into her 20s. I never saw her without at least light make-up; she changed her hair color constantly, but it was always perfectly styled. To the consternation of some of her classmates, and to the slack-jawed fascination of others, most days Jill wore as few clothes as legally possible. Her shorts were impossibly short; her skirts, micro-mini; her tops, low-cut. There were occasions when she wore no underwear, and the evidence of its absence was unmistakable. Jill didn’t seem to be dressing to attract her classmates or her professors; her demeanor was serene and determined rather than flirtatious. Her looks were a magnificent performance, but if anyone was fooled for a moment into thinking he might be the intended audience, Jill set him straight.
Jill had no interest in me as anything other than her professor. She didn’t need to say it, and I certainly gave her no reason to set a boundary. I’d learned a few years earlier to discern the difference between a passion for history and a passion for the man teaching it. Jill had a robust case of the former, and took both my women’s history and modern European classes the same semester. She came to my office hours once or twice a week; sometimes to argue, sometimes for help on papers, sometimes to talk about her issues with her parents and her dreams for the future. My office was tiny, and of necessity, students needed to sit near me. At times, it was an effort to keep my eyes on Jill’s, but I managed. If she’d had wanted something else, I would surely have given it, but she didn’t, so that was a moot point. She didn’t want me, and I can only want what wants me, so in some sense, we were safe as could be together.
That same semester, Ray took his first class with me. Ray was older than I was; in his early 40s. He was the single best writer I have ever taught; his papers were succinct sapphires of erudition, humor, and insight. I have never written anything half as good. Ray had dropped out of UC Santa Cruz in the 1970s, and he’d spent most of the years since battling various addictions. He lived in his truck. And Ray, bless him, reeked. He stank of body odor, of unwashed clothes, of cheap vodka seeping through his pores. He stank of cigarettes, which I minded less. That entire semester, he wore the same pair of ripped corduroys over construction boots, and rotated through a series of filthy flannel shirts.
Ray knew he reeked the way that Jill knew that she was alluring – with a kind of resigned certainty that this was the way his world was. He sat in the front, but often moved his desk away from other students, as if to spare them. There was no sparing me in our tiny office; my office mate, Charlie, made himself scarce when Ray appeared. Finally, near the end of the semester, Charlie asked me to meet Ray outside. I bought a pack of Parliaments which I kept in my desk just so that I could pretend that I wanted to have a smoke break, as that seemed the easiest excuse for getting Ray outside. (Ray was no fool, and figured out the real reason instantly. I did enjoy the cigarettes, though.)
As best I can remember, Ray and Jill only met once, as they weren’t in the same classes. The former was in my office when the latter walked in and sat down, right next to Ray. I introduced them; my two best students nodded at each other politely, then promptly started arguing with me about Afghanistan. The two were gloriously unperturbed by each other; Ray didn’t seem to notice Jill’s plunging neckline inches from his shoulder, and Jill seemed oblivious to the odor that radiated off the only student who was her intellectual equal. I kept up with their questions about Alexander the Great, the British, the Russians, and our own efforts against the Taliban, but in my mind, I flashed back to my aunt’s lesson. My God, I thought, how these two are teaching me.
Jill and Ray had bodies that were provocations. To the world, their meat sacks offered two variations on the same scandal. For a host of reasons rooted deep in their own histories, Jill and Ray could not or would not play by the rule that says that if one is to be taken seriously, one cannot have a body that distracts, arouses, or gives offense. The world says to its Rays and Jills, you need to clean up and cover up if you want to be taken seriously. I was being challenged to do better. Jill needed me not to respond to her sexually; Ray needed me not to respond with revulsion.
Good manners – and beyond that, basic decency – demand that we overcome our own lust and disgust when either serves to obscure another’s humanity. Yes, it is polite to consider the impact of one’s own body on those around you. We bathe and we conceal so that the particulars of our scent or our skin do not upset or distract or offend. At the same time, our desire to not give offense is not permission to take offense when someone else refuses (or is unable) to play by the “rules” about bodies. If Heloise decided to dress like Jill when headed to class, I might gently ask a few questions about time, place and manner. If David decided to stop bathing altogether, I’d certainly press the matter. The right to suggest a change to dress or hygiene habits rests on love, trust and shared history; I didn’t have enough of these with either student to take that step.
Jill and I were friends on Facebook for years, until she severed that connection in the aftermath of my fall from grace. Ray and I also stayed in touch long after he left my classes and he often came by to visit. He had no interest in transferring, or finishing his degree; he just wanted to learn for learning’s sake, talk for talking’s sake, and write because beautiful words need no justification. In 2011, shortly after turning 50, Ray died of a massive heart attack. I found out too late to go to his memorial service, but I did hear he died clean and sober.
I hope I taught Jill and Ray well. They were brilliant, the sort of gifted students professors get only a handful of times in a career. Their words dazzled. Their bodies dazzled too, and those bodies drove home a point about human dignity I had not fully grasped until I met them. The world told me that it was okay to let revulsion or desire overwhelm my empathy. In one semester, two students taught me otherwise.
The song I had on repeat while writing this is by one of our great songwriters, the extraordinary Lori McKenna. A daughter of Massachusetts, McKenna has written huge country hits for Tim McGraw (“Humble and Kind”) and Little Big Town (“Girl Crush”) as well as for her own records. A mother of five, McKenna rarely leaves the Commonwealth to tour or record; if you want to work with her, you go to Lori’s house. Many of the best do just that.
This is a song about leaving an abusive marriage, and it soars.