(Feature image by Dan at freedigitalphotos.com)
In Paper Towns by John Green (Dutton Books, 2008), a book ultimately about the impossibility of truly knowing others, the main character, Quentin, and his remarkably well-adjusted parents have a memorable conversation that I think of a lot. And as deeply ironic as John Green can get (and we love him for that very thing), I think he presented this conversation with a rare sincerity. It’s an almost naked good parenting moment. I actually kind of loved these parents.
The moment I’m talking about is in Chapter Fifteen. It’s where Quentin stops being a kid and starts being an adult and realizes that, up to now, he tried to use a mirror to understand others, instead of a window. The result—he saw others as reflections of his own immature issues. The reality—most of us never switch to windows.
Quentin’s mother tells him that when he’s older, he’ll see all kids (the good and the bad) as people who deserve to be cared for. She wants him to understand that we all have problems. His dad adds that the longer he works in the field of mental health, the more he sees that humans “lack good mirrors.” We have trouble showing others how we feel and others have trouble showing us how we look to them.
Then Quentin’s mother says:
“That is really lovely . . . . But isn’t it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.”
And suddenly Quentin gets it. He thinks about the girl that he’s obsessed over since he was a little kid. He realizes that he’d never seen her as a person. He’d never imagined her as having fears, shyness, or any other emotion. He’d believed her to be a god.
“And all at once, I knew how Margo Roth Spiegelman felt when she wasn’t being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty. . . . The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”
I really loved Quentin then.
I remember walking the halls of Durant High School, so shy I’d hyperventilate trying to get to my locker. I was guilty of doing what Quentin’s mother pointed
I was thinking about it tonight and wondering what high school would have been like if I had stood still, listened, held windows up to every kid in the hall and really tried to see them. To see that they were neither monster nor miracle. To see that they had issues that made life hard and that if I was brave enough to let them in, they would make me laugh or cry or love more deeply than I ever had.
I would like nothing more than for you all to leave the mirrors at home and use windows instead.
Green uses Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the map on which Paper Towns moves. Pretty brilliant, actually. Read it. Slowly. And take Whitman’s advice—study others, try your darndest to understand others, build and treasure relationships. Love. and love some more.
One of my favorite lines from Leaves of Grass is—“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”
Ha! Beautiful, right? Yes . . . it is very beautiful.