“Don’t judge a book by its cover!” We all like to spout this cliché, but few of us truly adhere to it, myself included. We live in a diverse, complicated world. We rely on our senses to navigate it—sight being one. We make assessments based on the images and preconceived notions our senses communicate to us.
The pierced and tattooed teen—a rebel; the cloaked, bearded Middle Eastern man—a radical; the grey-haired, wrinkled woman—old, displaced, no longer attractive or of value, beyond her prime.
But appearances are oft misleading for they only tell part of the story, the surface if you will. What lies behind the surface is the real story, which most likely is one we never would nor could imagine based upon visual assessment of one’s physical appearance alone.
To discover that, we need to peel the layer of onion skin by skin and scratch beneath the surface of the outer layer.
When I was in college, I worked part time at a restaurant to pay tuition and bills. The tips were good and the clientele upscale, sans one—a tattered disheveled middle-aged man known simple as Bear. Like clockwork, Bear followed a precision-perfect, accurately timed routine. He arrived at 5 pm, sat at the same bar stool at the back of the bar called the ledge by the locals, and ordered a vodka tonic and prime rib sandwich with toasted fries. And like a perfectly timed watch, he left exactly one-hour later.
He never talked to a soul and he never caused a ruckus or stir. When he arrived it resurrected memories of Hemingway’s short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place for me, which I had analyzed in American Lit freshman year even though our particular establishment was dark and dank.
Most of the patrons respected his privacy and routine and the majority left him alone; however, upon occasion there was the rude comment, the harsh glare, and even the accusatory assault. Bear just took it all in stride. He never once retorted back with anger. He never once defended himself. He never once made an excuse for his appearance and apparent lack of adherence to the social standard of the norm.
Eventually I learned his story and it was not what I had expected in the least.
He was not a social outcast, uneducated and incompetent. He was in fact a PhD-educated scholar who once taught at a prestigious local university. He taught economics and math. He had had a wife and a son, and a nice cottage on the hill replete with diligently tended flower beds and a white picket fence I imagine.
Once he had had it all. He had fulfilled his hopes and wishes and had turned them into a reality. Once upon a time, Bear was the posterboy for the American Dream. He was the epitome of what we all aspire to reach. This ended on a stormy night when his car was blindsided on the 8 while traveling to a show with his wife and son. The car in the adjacent lane hydroplaned due to the rain and impacted his own. His wife and son were killed. He was the sole survivor. And while he survived physically, he never recovered emotionally.
After learning this story, each time Bear entered the restaurant I treated him a tad differently than I had before. I took an extra step when walking him to his seat and I took the time to offer him a sincere welcome as I handed him his menu. I took the time to scratch beneath surface to see the story behind the story and the essence of the man behind the tattered clothes and the sad eyes and smile. I made an effort to get to know him; and in time, we even became friends.
So next time you feel yourself judging someone based upon appearance and first instincts alone, stop that snap judgment cold in its tracks.
Take pause. Ask yourself what’s behind the mask, what’s beneath the multi-layers of the onion skin. Take the time to scratch beneath the surface for you just might be surprised at what you find and learn, and if you are lucky you just might discover a new friend.