A Reflection

In September, I posted a quote from The Book Thief. It’s one of my favorite quotes from the book, but it’s incomplete. Actually, the complete quote is this:

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race–that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.
None of those things, however, came out of my mouth.
All I was able to do was turn to Leisel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.

“I am haunted by humans.

I am haunted by humans.

Most of the time, I see us like this:

If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being, the diagnosis would have to be: chronic paranoid delusions. a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived “enemies”–his own unconsciousness projected outward. Criminally insane, with a few brief lucid intervals.

–Eckhart Tolle

It’s deeply cynical, and I’m not proud of it, nor am I soothed by it for it omits the human propensity to do good, and the incredible talent of joy.

How can humanity be both criminally insane and compassionate? I wonder this all the time, and consequently find myself talking about it all the time. Conversations about delusional, selfish humanity, that exploits young girls, and works to exterminate entire races. The humanity that abuses animals and betrays loved ones. I can’t help but marvel at its cruelty.

A few weeks ago, it came up with my roommate and we shared stories of maids and enslaved migrant workers, and about the elephants she saw being beaten in Sri Lanka. I told her that the night before, I had a dream about rescuing a cat from a sadistic cat-torturer. It was only a dream, but I was disturbed by it because I knew it was also a reality. From the comfort of our living room, we looked out over humankind’s depravity.

Later that afternoon, I went to Ikea. The conversation was still fresh in mind as I stood picking through sheets.

What size is my bed, anyway? None of these say ‘single’. Does Ikea really expect me to know the dimensions in centimeters? I wondered. And why am I even bothering with sheets? I already have sheets! And a bed. Some people don’t even have a bed, and I’m stressing about sheets.

My rationale argued back. The point isn’t to deprive yourself of sheets; The point is to live so that everyone can have a bed with clean, non-scratchy sheets. Not buying sheets won’t make anyone else’s circumstances better, including your own.

Okay, but what color? And threadcount? Do these even have threadcount? Ugh. Threadcount. Can’t I just be grateful for the sheets?

I wandered to the next aisle, still unsure of my mattress size, the color I wanted, and why I was even bothering.

A toddler with big rosy jowls and a smile like sunshine waved at me from her cart.

Hi! Her whole face was a smile.
Hi! I returned the wave, and her grin gave way to a fit of giggles. She excitedly waved again. Hi!
She was so excited, I couldn’t help but giggle, too. I’d never seen someone so happy to be in Ikea!

I lifted a pack of sheets so it covered my face, then moved them quickly away again. Hi!

Oh, how she laughed!

And in the middle of that busy Ikea, surrounded by (surely) ill-fitting sheets, I did too.

How could I not?
One minute I’m guilty over buying sheets, and the next I’m laughing with a stranger. Isn’t that just like humanity?

Her mom came up then and together they began walking to the aisle I had just come from. She looked past her mom, to me, and waved again.

Ma Salaama! (In Arabic, ‘goodbye’ is actually ‘[Go] with Peace’.)

It stunned me. She looked Asian, and too small to be able to speak.

Her mom turned to me and laughed a little. Yeah, she says ‘Salaam aleykum! An Arabic greeting that translates to, Peace be upon you. Sometimes she gets mixed up and says, ‘Ma salaam aleykum!’

Amused, I smiled at both of them, then lifted my hand and waved goodbye to the girl. Ma salaam aleykum! Goodbye! I called after them.

She waved back. Go with peace!

She was beaming.

I beamed, too.


I am haunted by humans. And as I think this, another line from The Book Thief comes floating back to me: I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.