Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and Arthur O. Bakke stop for the night in Coeur d'Alene, where Bakke sets himself up with a bed for the night and LHM with a place to wash up. Before that, however, LHM has an opportunity to see how the honest directness of Bakke in peddling his Bible classes and his beliefs takes people aback. I'll reflect on this directness and how I could use a little more of it in my life. And now I'll be direct with you: go see the map and locate Coeur d'Alene!
"Bakke knew of an Adventist Church in Coeur d'Alene and figured finding a place for the night there. It began to rain - waving sheets of water the wipers couldn't handle...I stopped at a gas station for directions to the church, and Bakke went into his routine again. 'Salvation's just around the corner, brother.'
"The pumpman lighted a cigarette and looked helplessly at me to see if it was a joke. 'I'm already done up with the Presbyterians,' he said, retreating, watching us carefully as if Bakke had said, 'Is the safe just around the corner?'
"I was getting interested in the way people reacted to the offer of a free Bible course. Whatever the response, Bakke's directness unnerved them."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 2
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Being a passive-aggressive sort, I rarely say what I mean.
Okay, I'm being too harsh on myself. I have my moments of passive-aggressiveness, but mostly I hardly ever say what I really want because of a number of misconceptions that I'm trying to shed. Misconceptions like "nobody is really interested in what I have to say." Or "if I put my wants and needs out there, it will inconvenience everyone else."
What I really need is some of that unnerving directness that LHM describes as the hallmark of Arthur O. Bakke, Seventh Day Adventist and would-be savior of men's souls.
We've all met them, those honest and earnest but unnervingly direct people - and perhaps some of you reading this are that type of person. Such people say what they think and more importantly what they want. They don't have the baggage that a lot of us are saddled with from our families or our upbringings where saying what you think or want is discouraged. They just do it.
Such people usually aren't trying to make people uncomfortable, but their directness confronts people in an interesting way. It is discomfiting because it is earnest and honest and therefore presents a challenge. The first thing that I think, when a person is direct and honest with me in such a way, is something like "what's the catch?" As a society, we tend to walk around with our guards up. It is not safe to trust someone we don't know, and we also may even have some doubts about people we do know. Everyone is hiding something, right? At least that's the landscape a lot of us paint for ourselves, so when honest and direct comes crashing into that worldview it doesn't make sense.
I remember having a conversation with someone about the simple phrase "how are you?" Or it could be "how's it going?" These are stock questions that people often use when meeting someone else in passing. It might be someone who you don't know who says "Hi" or perhaps someone you know but you aren't going to visit with them. The exchange goes like this: Person 1 says "hi" as they walk past and Person 2 says "how are you doing?" The stock answer from Person 1 to this question is usually "okay."
Now, imagine if Person 1 actually took that question literally, and stopped to tell Person 2 just exactly how they were doing? Person 1 might respond with how he's feeling fine now but this morning woke up with a headache and is afraid that if he doesn't continue popping some aspirin it might come back. Oh, and he's had a little bit of an argument with his wife, but he figures he'll buy her some flowers on the way home from work tonight and perhaps they can have some makeup sex. His hemorrhoids were acting up last week but he thinks he's got them under control, and he has some long-term questions about the viability of his job but thinks that it will be okay for the foreseeable future, though there might be some financial difficulties coming down the way since the kid is going to need braces. Well before this time, Person 2 is backing away, like the pumpman in LHM's quote.
The point is, we rarely ever say what we truly mean and think. Perhaps the example above is a bit extreme. Who really wants to know all of what we are thinking? But a little more directness and honesty wouldn't hurt.
My wife and I are dealing with this. Both of our upbringings, for different reasons, left us with a legacy of not saying what we want but expecting the other person to somehow know. For me, the difficulty is that I don't want to disappoint other people. A small example might be when we are deciding where we want to go for dinner. I might really want a burger, but I hold back voicing my desire. My wife suggests Vietnamese. All of a sudden my assumptions and caretaking start. I assume that she really wants to go for Vietnamese. I like Vietnamese. It wouldn't be my first choice in this instance but I can live with it. And she really wants it. So we go Vietnamese, and in the course of the conversation she finds out I really wanted a burger when she was just suggesting a place and wasn't really wedded to the idea. I would have been better off had I just stated what I want directly and honestly.
Of course, there are people who seem to be direct and honest and really aren't. I've run into a few of these people in my life. Some crash your boundaries, make you feel unique and special, and make you think that you are important to them. However, when you pull back the curtain, the motivations are completely self-serving. Most of the time, if you look a little farther, you see a pattern of bad behavior and broken relationships. But, for a time, the wool is pulled over your eyes until that person gets what they want, and then they are gone. In my case, the ability to see through the curtain is neutralized by a desire to please others based on a deeper need for others' acceptance, and that's a deep-seated need from way back in my childhood.
So what's the middle ground? Obviously, we can't trust everyone and we shouldn't. At the same time, it does us no good personally or as a society to be constantly on our guards when we don't need to be. I think that knowing ourselves and trusting ourselves to be able to pick out dangers on the one hand, but also being willing to voice our needs and opinions openly, on the other hand, is that perfect place we seek. And lastly, we won't be able to avoid all the hurts of life, but just trusting we'll survive them and will move on is the biggest act of compassion we can give ourselves.
Again, look at the example of Arthur O. Bakke. He keeps putting it out there, and most people give into their discomfort and back slowly away. It doesn't stop him. He has a belief and it gives him strength. We don't have to believe as he does, but believing in ourselves will make a lot of difference.
Addendum: In May of 2011, a couple picked up the only hitchhiker they have ever stopped for. Here is their story of their encounter with Arthur O. Bakke.
If you want to know more about Coeur d'Alene
Next up: Bonner's Ferry, Idaho