At a recent exhibition of the work of artist Georgia O’Keeffe I took note of a statement attached to the wall above one of her nature paintings. “If only people were trees”, she was quoted as saying. “I might like them better.” The context for this flight into misanthropy was not disclosed, but since O’Keeffe lived to the age of 99 one could assume her observation was based on long-term, first-hand experiences.
Human beings are classified as social animals which means we spend our lives linked to and dependent upon others. We’re not, however, necessarily or naturally disposed to like them and, as O’Keeffe reminds us, that’s often the case. Some portion of our distaste can be attributed to social distance, ignorance and fear, i.e., there are categories of people for whom many can muster little understanding or sympathy, reflexively dismiss as unacceptable. These might include recent immigrants, the poor, the elderly, Southerners, Republicans, Democrats, Jews, Evangelicals, etc. Many people, one senses are susceptible to a broad spectrum of prejudices.
It is unlikely that O’Keeffe was giving expression to such blunt and undifferentiated animosity. Rather she was probably reflecting upon all those people she had found disagreeable over her lifetime. Here is where many of us, I suspect, would agree. Over the years who hasn’t repeatedly encountered individuals whose presence could barely be tolerated. Consider such types as these: Take those persons almost totally consumed with themselves, consistently self-referential, and given to acting “superior”. To them no other subject counts for much. Your efforts to change topics rarely succeed; your views barely register, and are largely ignored. This type cannot always be distinguished from the relentless “show off”, i.e., the person ever in competitive mode, who must consistently “outshine” others, whatever the circumstances. Then there is the “ideologue”, ever maneuvering to bring the conversation around to some unwavering belief, be it that the wealthy control everything, the United States is heading toward ruin, everyone is out for themselves, politicians are totally unprincipled or that today’s younger generation just doesn’t measure up. Then, too, there are always the “fools” who must be suffered – the parochial, the paranoid and the prejudiced.
One must assume that O’Keeffe encountered many such folks throughout her life leading to her overall unflattering characterization of people in general. On the other hand, we should not accept uncritically her dismissive attitude toward fellow human beings. Part of the fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare, may not simply rest with others, but, often enough, resides in ourselves.