Elisabeth Morris

A matter of planes

“My sister and I get along beautifully together: she cares only about the big things of life, and I care only about the little ones.” This remark, made to me once by a friend of mine, comes into my mind every now and then, and I am increasingly amused by its astuteness. For nothing seems more capricious than the basis of our harmonious inter course one with another. We constantly see people whom we would aver to be incompatible, living serenely at peace, while others, whose cordial agreement we would as confidently predict, are quarreling scandalously. I believe my friend s remark may throw some light on the matter. It amounts to this: people on the same plane may clash, people on different ones cannot. It is the grade-crossings that make trouble.

Let us see how it works. Here are Benedick and I living happily together, although our acquaintances would “never have expected it.” We are both of us possessed of strong convictions, but they happen not to concern the same things. For example, I put sugar in my coffee. I think that is the way to take coffee, and of course I always put it in Benedick s cup too. Now Benedick doesn’t care,—he would scarcely notice if I dropped an onion in, because he is thinking about civil-service reform and other large matters. As he drinks his coffee he talks to me of these things, which I regard as unquestionably of vital importance, but unquestionably not of vital interest. Yet Benedick talks well, and it is very becoming to him to be deeply in earnest, and so I like to listen to him. Thus we get along together very happily. He accepts my little habits, and I accept his big principles. The adjustment is perfect.

On the other hand, there is a certain lady who sometimes visits us. She drinks her coffee without sugar, and she never sits at breakfast with us that she does not evince real uneasiness as she watches the white cubes being dropped into our steaming cups. Benedick has never even noticed that she is uneasy, but I have, because,—well, because I am living on her plane; for I myself am always conscious of a distinct feeling of annoyance when I see any one put sugar on lettuce. Nor is this the only ground of discord between us. She has the habit of rising at half-past six every morning, and taking a cold bath before breakfast. She is never late. I often am, and I loathe cold baths, except in the ocean. Accordingly, when I come down, I find her awaiting me, covered with meritoriousness as with a garment, and I feel myself her inferior, a feeling which I resent but can not escape. I find no refuge in philosophy, for I have no more philosophy than she has. No, we are on the same plane, and we are always colliding.

On the other hand, Benedick likes her very well, but for his part cannot get through a meal comfortably with his uncle, because they disagree about trusts and the tariff. Yet his uncle and I always enjoy each other’s society. He takes three lumps of sugar in his coffee and none at all on his lettuce; he regularly oversleeps the breakfast hour and apologizes handsomely for it afterwards. He has, in fact, what I consider a comfortable set of habits, and his theories do not disturb me. Personally, I find it pleasant to live with people who will let me arrange the unimportant features of life, while I am quite ready to let them settle what one of my teachers used to call its “cosmic principles.” I can understand one s enduring martyrdom for the sake of de tails of taste, but not for such large matters as Truth or the Hereafter, which seem to me abundantly able to take care of themselves.

I wonder if this explains why men are less apt to quarrel with women than with other men, and women less apt to quarrel with men than with other women. For the lives of men and women are doubtless on quite different planes; they are not apt to feel strongly about the same things, and thus each is indulgent toward the other s convictions, not being deeply touched by them. Have you ever noticed at a dinner-party, when one of the men is telling a good story, the difference between the attitudes of the other men and of the women? The women—except perhaps the wife of the speaker—listen easily, receptively; the men listen restlessly, each alert for a chance to follow up the tale with one of his own. For it is perfectly well understood that women are not required to tell good stories at dinner, and so a woman can enjoy them all irresponsibly, while a man feels in each one something very like a challenge.

On the other hand, when either sex invades the other sphere, there is apt to be trouble. We all know how a woman, the ordinary, normal woman, feels when the man attempts to “interfere” in the household; and a man, the ordinary, normal man, has a similar objection to women s invading his province. In Germany, at a university function some years ago, an old professor in conversation with a young American woman expressed himself rather positively on some economic question. She, being fairly well grounded in economics, ventured to differ, and began to give her reasons for so doing, when he interrupted her with a gesture of surprise and irritation, and the remark, “I am not accustomed to hear myself contradicted by young women.”

But I suppose some one may object, “Why must people on the same plane inevitably collide? Why cannot they run companionably parallel?” And indeed this has an attractive sound; but people’s lives do not run on artificial tracks. They may move along easily side by side for a while, but then crash! The collision comes.

If you still doubt, try two experiments. Find two people deeply interested in theological theory, and apparently in agreement, and set them discussing the matter with each other in a really exhaustive way. See if they do not separate with some little mutual disapproval, if not distrust. “Ah!—Mr.——is not so sound as I had supposed.” Then, to make the test on the little things of life, take two people the most harmonious possible, find them in an amiable mood, I will even allow you to give them a good dinner first, and then set them the task of choosing wall-papers for their country home. Need I describe the outcome?

Ah, no! Our only safety lies in non-conflicting levels. You who are entering on a matrimonial or otherwise friendly compact, put not your trust in a harmony based on positive agreement: it is shifting sand beneath your feet. Ground your happiness in a nice dove tailing of eager conviction with tolerant in difference, and you are safe for a lifetime.

(1917)

MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “A matter of planes.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/matter_of_planes/>.

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