There’s a rather famous Latin saying, “in vino veritas.” Out in Los Angeles, we have driving to show you the truth of a person. The other day I was behind the wheel and some middle-aged lady in a Honda sedan gunned her engine in order to cut me off and be one all-important car-length ahead in traffic. As I sat behind her at the red light, I saw the cross dangling from her rearview mirror swinging back and forth, it was jostled when she rocked to a stop. I laughed out loud. The only thing that would’ve made it funnier was if she had one of those “WWJD?” bumper stickers. Clearly she’d forgotten what many would argue was one of the central messages of her lord and savior, “love your neighbor as yourself.” What Would Jesus Do? Indeed.
I know… just because some woman displays her devotion to Jesus, I shouldn’t expect her to actually, you know, use him as an inspiration in her life. That would be ridiculous. And yeah, there are plenty of dudes with tattoos of giant crosses, sitting in prison doing long stretches for triple murder. I guess I’m just naïve to expect kindness and consideration from someone sporting a cross. That’s why I have to constantly remind myself, most of the time, a person is the exact opposite of how they appear or portray themselves.
I once worked as a delivery driver for a Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood, and I quickly learned a big house in the hills rarely meant a big tip. WeHo is a predominantly gay neighborhood and I got hit on a lot but that didn’t translate into better tips. The dudes who lived down in the duplexes, the ones who were still wearing their work clothes when I showed up with their food, they were usually the generous ones. They appreciated my time and effort, while the rich customers often didn’t give enough to buy a gumball. Why? I guess because they valued their money more than my time or effort. After awhile, I was surprised whenever some dude in a nice home was courteous and/or tipped well. Of course, not all rich people are poor tippers and not all people in apartments are generous, but what I expected going in was the opposite of the general pattern I experienced.
The owner of the Chinese restaurant laughed at my learning curve. To him, this was all an obvious “truth” of human nature, gay or straight. He told me everything is the opposite of how it appears. Rich people were cheap, struggling folks were generous, nice people said fucked-up things, and hard-faced people called their mother every Saturday to check on her. Took awhile to believe him because it’s totally counter-intuitive to what you assume.
Before I moved to Los Angeles, a friend and I started a house-painting company. After spending time in lots and lots of homes, we saw firsthand that just because someone has money it sure doesn’t mean they’ll have taste or even a sense of how to live well. We often drove up to some million-dollar mansion that looked like a respectable estate, yet on the inside it looked more like a Nevada whorehouse designed by Ikea. And the place would be a mess. Then in some apartment, we’d find a renter who had exquisite taste and their home looked like it should be featured in an architectural magazine. It’s true- money can’t buy class and judging books by their covers is the habit of a fool.
These days, I start from the other end of the pool. Rather than wade into the shallow end, I just jump in the deep end and expect that everything and everyone will be the opposite of what I assume. And you know what? It works better than water-wings to keep my head above water.
If someone tells me they go to church every week, I figure they need to because they struggle with decency. If someone tells me about their charity, I think their primary reason to volunteer isn’t to help people but to tell others how they do charity work. And if someone tells an offensive joke at a party, I wager they help their neighbor’s kids with their homework. So far, it’s working far better. Not always, but often enough I don’t end up standing there, shaking my head with a stupid look on my face.
A friend of mine makes love to his guitar in a death metal band. One of his hobbies is trolling on Facebook and pretty much anywhere else he can get a rise out of folks on the internet. He’ll visit evangelical forums and post about how he’s very spiritual. Soon as some people give him kudos for being a man of faith, he tells them he’s very devoted… to Satan. Of course, he doesn’t really worship the devil. But he loves to get a rise out of hypocrites. And once those decent God-fearing folks start attacking him and posting their horrible comments about “people like him” he’ll calmly ask why they don’t just forgive him, or maybe, turn the other cheek. It’s adolescent but it proves his point. The greatest irony about the guy is he’s one of the world’s great sweethearts. If I was stuck, bumming it at some rest stop on the side of the freeway, he’s one of the few people I believe would actually drive out to save me.
A few months ago, this same friend captured the perpetrator of a hate crime. Some hateful asshole beat up a young gay college kid and my friend caught and detained the guy until police arrived. He has one of the greatest hearts I’ve ever known and he buries it underneath a façade of indifference and death metal swagger. You’d never guess from his metal god “I don’t give a fuck but I do love porn” attitude, but he’s the one of the few folks who not only gives a fuck, he loves his friends, his family and his neighbors. He worked two jobs to put his sister through dental school. Most folks who know him have no idea he did that that because he never tells anyone. He’s a saintly sort hidden in the clothes of a sinner.
I grew up with another dude who was wealthy, popular, privileged, free of worry or concern. He could be or do whatever he wanted. A few months ago he took a samurai sword and attacked his live-in girlfriend. Lots of folks were surprised this guy who has it all would commit such an atrocious act. But the thing is, outwardly he might have it all, but inside he housed a seething anger, a rotten center, impossible to spot in the light of day.
We’re simple creatures. Upright walking apes who’ve been to the moon, but that doesn’t mean we’ve transcended the bonds of the animal kingdom. We believe what we see because it’s right there in front of us. We’re the smartest dumb creatures on the planet.
Studies often point out how employers prefer attractive jobseekers to less attractive ones. Why? Because we assume they possess other positive traits. And it works the other way as well. Ask any overweight person and they’ll tell you stories that’ll break your heart about all the times people assume they’re lazy, ambitionless, stupid, ignorant and all sorts of other negative traits, purely because they carry extra weight. Doesn’t matter if they workout harder and more frequently than the folks who judge them, due to reasons of body type, family history or metabolism they’re just a big person, and they suffer for it when others constantly make negative assumptions about them. It happens to lots of groups of people.
Recently, the U.S. Congress after much debate decided to allow women into arenas of combat, despite the fact, women have been kicking ass in battles dating back to pre-history. Somehow, because women are seen as “nurturers,” we tend to assume they’ll fail on the battlefield and become unreliable when they’re menstruating, or they’ll be overcome by their roiling emotional inner worlds. It’s truly laughable. Anyone familiar with the animal kingdom knows the female of the species is often the more dangerous one. But somehow this basic truth of our animal nature, that women are badasses, is ignored in favor of faulty social constructs.
I don’t generally laugh at outbursts of violence. That said, I used to live in San Francisco, and some of my favorite moments were going out to gay bars and gay dance clubs because that’s where the fun was. The music, the drugs and the women were all better in gay clubs. And leaving a club late one night I watched a drag queen kick the living shit out of some haters who drunkenly stumbled past and decided they’d talk some smack to the dude in the dress. Without taking off his heels, she beat those two muscle-bound men to the ground. Their friends had to drag them away. And I’m fairly certain she didn’t even have to adjust her wig when she was done. No one, including me, saw that coming.
Despite all the times in my life when I’ve seen, heard or experienced how the world is often the exact opposite of what we assume, I still must constantly remind myself. Basically, I’m an idiot, and it’s apparently one of the easiest things for me to forget. I see a nice car in a parking lot and when a well-dressed woman steps out, I never expect her to push past me and tell me to “get the fuck out of my way.”
We rarely expect our plumber to sing opera songs from memory, or to hire a roofer who’s one of the most intelligent men you’ll ever meet. We’re surprised when scientists at NASA manipulate data for a test for the Mars rover and conspire to hide their design flaws just to protect their budget. It’s like, “really, NASA?” A rocket scientist is our cultural equivalent of a genius. We say “well, he’s no rocket scientist” when some dude acts like a mouth-breathing troglodyte. And yet, geniuses still do dumb shit all the time. And we just forget.
Since every day is apparently Opposite Day, it might help you to remember, things are often the total opposite of what they seem. Maybe your family member is being shitty to you not because of something you did but because of something they did. Maybe your neighbor ignores you because they feel awkward or insecure and not because they think you’re unworthy of their time. Maybe that guy you started seeing doesn’t always return your texts because he really wants to but it kinda scares him to be clever. Maybe the girl you went out with last week desperately wants to go out without you again but the last time she felt this attracted to someone she got hurt and now she doesn’t want to admit her fear, not even to herself, and that’s why she acted weird when you called her. Maybe the way someone else is acting towards you has nothing to do with you.
The best thing you can do is, rather than act based on what you “think” is going on, wait for more information to confirm it. Far too often everyone and everything we see is completely backwards from what we think and assume. So, to the best of your abilities, avoid any assumptions, correct for your biases, and try as hard as you can to remember as Public Enemy once warned us, “Don’t believe the hype.”