Why don’t people behave as they are supposed to?

I grew up well trained: not just about right and wrong, or about history, math, and literature, but about abstract things. I learned how the world is organized, what the “natural” order of things should be, and where people fit in that order.

My next-door neighbor, for example, drank heavily and cursed loudly. He had a lush garden and several lively children, but the vile behaviors made his a family to avoid. Doc Thompson, by contrast, deserved to be cultivated, for he lived by the community’s highest standards. He made house calls on the sick; he never missed church; he smiled at everyone.

I knew the order; I knew where people fit. And that made life easy.

Except . . .

Except that the longer I live, the more people I meet who refuse to follow the rules.

I ran into several of that next-door neighbor’s children awhile back, and they left me breathless. They were sharp in every way: intelligent, witty, compassionate, full of grace. And they treated me as if they’d never noticed the way I used to avoid them. I came away feeling ashamed and deprived, embarrassed at my aloofness and sad that I’d deprived myself of rich friendships.

It happened again a few weeks ago, when I got into a conversation with the security guard at a Chicago school. I knew instinctively what kind of person he would be, because I knew where security guards fit in the social order. I was ready to speak simply, on “his level.”

But he too refused to fit. His conversation moved quickly to the world of music, a world he inhabits when he is not at the school. He also wanted to talk about the mountains of Bosnia, where he used to live. And then he asked me what I thought about two of my favorite Japanese novelists, Murakami Haruki and Mishima Yukio. He has read more of them than I have; his insights floored me. Once more, I came away ashamed of my pigeon holes.

What’s wrong with me? With the ordered world that I inherited?

Bob Thompson suggested an answer in his March 27 Voluptuous God blog when he talked about Jesus surrounding himself with “outcasts,” defying establishment conventions that silence the marginalized., and making himself into “a social justice subversive.”

The conventions always catch me up; they make me miss the common spirit that I share with every single one of God’s creatures. They stuff me–and everyone else–into a box. They isolate me and make me lose out on so much of the richness, the ideas, the variety, the surprise, and the energy that is mine for the taking.

Decades ago, I visited the Soviet pavilion at the World Fair in Osaka, Japan. I knew what to expect, because I had been taught what kinds of people the Russians were. They were macho militarists; they were authoritarian; they wanted the world to know about their space exploits and their military prowess.

I entered the pavilion ready to shake my head in disgust at exhibits that would demonstrate precisely these values. But when I looked around, there were no weapons to be found. Instead, I saw scores–it may have been hundreds–of sentimental children’s pictures: crayon drawings, on white paper, of families and nature and fantasy worlds. They were as sweet as they were skillful.

I was befuddled. How could these people–these coarse, belligerent people–produce something so gentle and human? What had my teachers–and the whole American establishment–missed when they described the Russians? Why had we been so wrong? And what else might be wrong in the worldview I had been given?

The questions raised by that Soviet pavilion were numerous and complex, and they still haunt me, all these years later. The most important one, however, has a simple answer. The neat order just doesn’t exist. It may give comfort and security to those of us in the middle class. But it is a fiction, nothing more. And it is a dangerous fiction, for every time I embrace it, I miss the joy and growth made possible in a world where all of God’s creatures are one.