Only in the past few years have I started to accept that each person is a blend of many things, rather than being a consistent, unified whole. It took me a couple of decades, as a student of psychology and as a person living among other people, to grasp this basic fact about human beings and to let go of a naive expectation to see total uniformity in personalities. Now, I can appreciate the “good” in people (“good” standing for whatever we find pleasing in others) without feeling disappointment when someone I respect reveals a more worldly side of themselves.
When I was young, I believed artists and intellectuals embodied a unified and perfect character, with their ideas and practices fitting seamlessly together. The absence of this perfection left me feeling disappointed and confused. Now, of course, I’m unsure whether I’ve merely become accustomed to this feeling of disappointment, or if I’ve genuinely altered my beliefs and expectations.
Back then, I assumed that artists and thinkers had achieved a unity in their personality, influenced by their passions and interests. I believed what made them admirable was not merely the collection of good qualities they possessed, but the harmonious co-existence of those good qualities. That unity of character, to me, was the sign of “high culture.” The expression of such unity was the sign of membership in high culture.
For those I personally knew and deemed to fit this category, this belief heightened my excitement to spend time with them. I hoped to witness, in relatively more intimate moments, an embodiment of that unity, in their private lives, evidence of their adherence to high culture.
My music teacher, Mr. Z, was among the first to become the subject of this naive fantasy. I was fortunate enough to study with him for several years before he invited me to his home. We enjoyed conversations about music, art, history, religious skepticism, and philosophy. He told me about his mentors and other influences, and I listened to every word with such eagerness. But he also indulged in crude humor, talked about pornography (pornography not as a subject of philosophical discussion, but as something he liked to consume occasionally), and on several occasions—when you arrive early enough or stay long enough to overlap with your host’s previous or next social engagement—I observed prostitutes arriving or leaving his place.
At the time, I wasn’t prepared to see those sides of him. I expected to see art, high art, fine art, reflected in Mr. Z’s every action, and believed all his actions must originate from the same core. I regarded his life as a work of art and felt betrayed when reality fell short of that expectation. It seemed as if his artistic life, intellectual ideas, his appreciation for art, his creativity, were disassociated parts of him.
Reflecting on my time with Mr. Z, I do not long for the past, but for the missed opportunity to truly appreciate my mentors, without the distortion of my own expectations and biases. Mr. Z was one among a handful of such valuable people in my early life, from whom I ended up distancing myself. I believe I would have enjoyed his company more, and would’ve allowed it to be more long-lasting, had I allowed him to broaden my understanding of life, to expose me to his life, and all its dimensions.