I once heard someone say that people are like onions. On the outside they appear one way, but if you dare to venture any further, you will discover that their papery external is merely a facade. The true flavor of a persons soul can be discovered through thorough investigation. You need only peel layer after layer away to reveal the true person; the real deal; the genuine onion.
I think this is an inadequate description of the human soul.
Why, you ask? Aren’t people multilayered? Tender on the inside? Full of potential reasons for tears?
I find the analogy frustrating firstly because people are much more interesting that onions. Certainly an onion is multilayered, but what of it? The more you peel, the more layers you dismantle, the more onion you get. Layer after layer you discover that the onion is indeed and onion. White. Pungent. Onion-y.
There is no diversity in an onion. No color. No nuance. And what is more, I don’t think people generally take well to having their souls disassembled. And that is what you have to do to peel an onion; take it all a part, and let it lay naked and ashamed on the kitchen counter. And yes, after that reading that description, I hope you never think of sauteeing onions the same again.
Perhaps you are now thinking “It’s only an analogy, Joy. Calm down. Have a cup of tea.” But, I stand my ground. The way we think of things is important. CS Lewis believed that symbolism is the language of the soul, and shapes how we relate to the world. Certainly the way we think of our fellow mortals is worth some examination. Furthermore, I am particularly interested because I love people. I am absolutely fascinated by them. People are colorful, complicated, and mysterious.
Onions just don’t cut it.
So, let me propose another analogy: tapestries.
In many cultures, tapestries are used to tell stories. As the writer takes up the pen, the weaver takes up thread and loon to weave a tale. Thought is given to every detail; the texture, the color, the weave. The threads dance through the weaver’s hand to make a fabric of distinct threads, so interconnected that you can hardly tell where one thread begins or ends. Yet, try to pluck one thread out, and you run the risk of undoing the whole picture into frays of fabric. Sometimes a color leaves off, only to appear again, but it is all a part of the complexity of a tapestry that makes us want to stare, touch, and marvel.
People are made up of stories. Families, friends, loves, and hatreds run like threads through our souls, so interconnected you can hardly separate them. Pain is woven with joy; love is woven with hurt; faith is woven with doubt. One might follow a thread of passion, to find that at some point it hides under a thread of family, braided in with prayer and an affinity for iced tea on hot days.
And through all of our stories, the hand of the weaver is there, pulling together our threads like the master storyteller he is.
We are not made up of neat little layers to be dissected. People are a joyful, terrible, sorrowful, and beautiful conglomeration of the threads of our past. We are the sum of what we can remember, and what our soul remembers even when we consciously forget.
I find the distinction between onions and tapestries imperative because it so shapes how we love each other. Do we charge into communion with each other with precision blades searching for tidy layers, sensical explanations and resolution? Or do we approach with humble trepidation the marvelous complexity bound up in the souls and stories of our fellow image bearers. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139).
You can gain an impression of a tapestry, just as we can gain sudden and distinct impressions of people, and yet it is important to remember that we don’t fully understand what has gone into the weaving of any one individual life. To love well, is to sit patiently, to investigate, to admire, to challenge carefully, and to treat with dignity. We must learn to, as Yeats wrote “tread softly” as we tread on the fabrics of others lives.
I know I so often love poorly. I am impatient and clumsy, and yet I so want to fix people: analyze them and prescribe a solution. But perhaps the challenge is not to fix others, but to treat them with honor as the tapestries of beauty, brokenness, and redemption they are. I want to marvel, observe, be patient and look for the hand of the weaver that is weaving their story…
Just as he is weaving mine.