How to Be a Whobody

September 28, 1997


How to be a Whobody

Some of the books written for kids in recent years have been so witty that libraries have a hard time keeping them away from adults long enough for the kids to check them out. I remember one with a title so appealing to grownups that it was almsot impossible to resist wanting to read the book; it was called Don’t Play Dead Until You Have To. One man I know was asked, when he returned it, if he had liked it. He said “Yes” and the librarian said she was also very anxious to get a child’s view-point — that the book had been in her library for 8 months and had been in the hands of an adult the entire time.
Another book for children, by Charles and Ann Morse, provided me with the strange word in the sermon title. They coined the wordwhobody to mean someone who knows you fairly well, has some notion of what makes you tick, and actually cares what happens to you. I think most of us know that there aren’t a great many such people in our lives at any given time. Many acquaintances, a few friends. Since we learn in grade school to sharpen our definitions by using antonyms, the authors of this children’s book tell us that the opposite of their whobody is an anybody — and I understood them perfectly when they identified an anybody as that stranger calling between 5 and 6:30 in the evening and assuming a false intimacy in order to sell you something.
I’ve mentioned this intrusion before, but it stays on my mind because it happens several times a week. As a matter of fact I was interrupted while working on this very sermon by a man who said, “Hello, is this Robert May….Mayers.” You figure it’s not a dear friend when he doesn’t know how to pronounce your name, but I had to be sure it wasn’t somebody eager to hear about UCC, so I said, “This is Robert Meyers,” only to hear the man say with feigned familiarity, “Hello, Robert, how are you today?” We all know what that question, delivered in that tone of voice, means: we have what the Morses call in their book a faceless stranger feigning friendship in order to get a salesman’s foot in the door. I’m afraid I fell into a teaching mode. I said, “I’m fine, thank you, but I’m actually much better when intrusive total strangers do not presume an intimacy which does not exist and address me by my first name. Good evening, sir.”
Sometimes I’m nicer than that, especially if my name is pronounced correctly by a pleasant young voice, and I will say, “I realize you are trying to make a living, and I don’t want to be unkind, but surely you must know how irritating this is to most of us so I hope you will be able to find another job soon where you don’t have to intrude like this on people’s privacy.” And once in a great while, there’ll be a few seconds of silence at the other end, and then a poignant whispered confession: “So do I!” And in that moment, the unseen anybody on the line becomes a whobody, and with all my heart I wish her well.
If an anybody may suddenly become a whobody, the opposite may also happen at times. I’ve mentioned before how almost no one remains fully human in an elevator. I used to get into one several times a day at the University, and often these days at hospitals, and I still find it one of the oddest items of social behavior that almost no one ever speaks after the elevator door closes. People who greet each other in the halls or on the stairs hardly look at each other, much less break the silence in that oppressively intimate little box. There are only a few strategies for dealing with this, so we all tend to imitate one another. I gaze at the floor numbers and watch them light up as if they might reveal some deep mystery, until I become aware that 3 or 4 other people are also staring at them, at which point I switch my attention to the ceiling. But invariably 2 or 3 others decide there must be something there to pass the silent moments, so they also look up…..until we realize about the same time how little reward that has brought, not to mention the fact that now we’ve really exposed our faces. So then we start staring at the book in our hands, if we are lucky enough to have one, or we begin to study intently the tops of our shoes. I think a survey might show that more people become knowledgeable about the condition of their shoes while riding in elevators than in all other possible ways.
So acting like a whobody or an anybody often depends on where we are and what we’re doing. We had a Lebanese doctor move into our neighborhood and spend money so lavishly that I’m sure it made all of us secretly a little envious, and one jolly American in a house a few doors away told the doctor one day that he ought to move back to Lebanon where he came from. They almost came to blows. But one day the doctor’s pretty little 3-year-old daughter got lost, and there is a dangerous creek and pond nearby, so as the moments stretched out and the neighbors became aware of the mother’s growing panic, out came people from their houses with words of comfort and a willingness to help search. The child was found OK after more than an hour, but for a while we turned into whobodies to one another and were not just anybodies living in the same block.
Toffler makes a distinction like this in Future Shock , the book that was so popular some years ago on college campuses. He talks about the difference between “disposable people” and “friends.” There is something horrifying about the idea of “disposable people,” and yet it only takes a moment of thought to realize that we practice that distinction. Not everyone we meet can be special to us. In fact, as Harvard theologian Harvey Cox says, if we try to become deeply involved with everyone we are led inevitably to emotional trauma. There just isn’t that much time and energy available to us, and we end up not really knowing anyone. So to say that many people are “disposable” is Toffler’s way of saying that not everyone can be special to us.
We are forced into choices. We cultivate a few whobodies and realize that many people must remain anybodies, even though we know them a little. Our society demands that of us, for one thing, because it’s so mobile. If we thought the block would stay as it is for 20 years we might make certain overtures, but when we see it change by 50% in 3 or 4 years we are tempted to remain pleasant anybodies and nod when we pass on the street. Toffler tells in his book of a woman in California who flies each week to her hairdresser in New York, and of a man who flies to New York every morning and returns to his home in Cleveland every night. That kind of pace makes intimate friendships difficult. Ministers would like to be on a whobody basis with everyone who comes through the doors of their churches, but it’s impossible even in a middle-sized congregation like this one. Several hundred have come and gone even in our brief history and there is no conceivable way I could have had a close relationship with all of them.
Some professor did a study with 39 married couples in Lincoln, Nebraska, asking them to list their very best friends. They averaged 7 “friendship units,” either individuals or couples….and some of these did not live close to them. Christianity does not demand that we make whobodies out of all the people we meet, but it does demand that we treat most of the anybodies with respect. Not because we feel personal affection for them, which is impossible, but as a matter of principle implemented by will power. Living under the lordship of Christ, we are courteous to clerks and waiters, we thank those who serve us, we smile and say a warm hello to people who are obviously having a hard time. We keep in mind that when Jesus spoke of how God notices even the sparrows that fall he was not setting out a math formula, not trying to describe a supernatural accountant who knows literally the number of hairs on our heads. He was using the poetry of hyperbole, but poetry can be the most serious thing on earth, and Christ was serious in telling us to find some value in anyone we meet.
And some of them, these anybodies we brush against every day, occasionally turn for a moment or a lifetime, into the whobodies who make life good. We like relationships where we don’t have to be proving ourselves constantly, where we don’t have to knock ourselves out trying to make the other person understand because she understands without that. Here’s a true story of how it works. It was after a sermon one day, years ago, and the young man was waiting at the door to tell the minister how much he appreciated a few references made that morning to sensible funeral arrangements. His mother had died a couple of nights before, and her funeral was to be on the next day. He said his mother’s last wish was that she be buried in the cheapest casket her son could find. Her life philosophy absolutely demanded that no exorbitant expense be lavished on her burial. She wanted the money put, not into the ground but into the lives of those she had loved. So, trying to be faithful, the son followed her wishes. But people all around criticized him and accused him of not loving his mother, not paying her the proper respect, not realizing that she was just too sick to know what she really wanted. Only one person came and said, “If this is true to your mother’s outlook, and to her wishes, and if you know it is right even against the suspicions of others, then do it. I support you.” Among all the anybodies who had sung their thoughtless songs in chorus, like crickets, that person was real.
The world is so full of echoes that it’s marvelous to hear an authentic voice, someone who responds to our unique self in our unique circumstance for no other reason than to be helpful. It’s sad but true that there are anybodies all over the place who are more interested in what we have than what we are, whose pretended friendship is only a strategy for getting what they want — and this should not surprise us, given the great emphasis society places on getting and having. One of the most shocking paragraphs in that book of Toffler’s which I mentioned earlier was his brief account of a young boy who committed suicide simply because he was grounded. His note said, “I can’t have the car, therefore I can’t get a date and go to parties, so there is nothing to live for.” That boy must not have had any whobodies in his life, or he would never have based his happiness on just getting and going.
One more observation. With a whobody, you can express and release feelings. There was another popular book some years ago whose title could have led to a useful sermon. It was called God’s Frozen People , and I am forever amazed at how many there are of those: people who seldom smile or shed a tear, in whose faces rigor mortis has set in so solidly that you would not dare share your emotions in their presence. I still think Norman Cousins had something when he said that laughter may be, in some kinds of sickness, the most potent of all medicines. A man I once knew said that when his two oldest children were about six and eight they asked him one day why he never laughed. He didn’t know how to answer, but he did realize they were saying something honest about him. He could make others laugh, but he rarely laughed himself. So he began to laugh more often, and at first it was quite an occasion. The children would say, “Daddy is laughing!” and call one another to see the sight. He had almost turned into an anybody with his own children.
Luckily for him, they knew in their innocence that with a father who is open and real they could be the same, and they also knew instinctively that this is the greatest relief and the highest happiness most of us are likely to have. Surely Christ had something like this in mind when he set a child before his disciples and said, “Unless you become like this, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I thought of that remark just last night as I looked into the faces of a couple of little flowergirls at a wedding and saw how naively they made no pretense of being anything but themselves. It’s a little late in the day, but I’m trying harder than ever to be like them. Please consider once or twice this week what that might mean in your life.

Show us some door this week, gracious God, through which — in
the unpretentious way of a child — we may pass on an errand
of kindness for the kingdom’s sake in the name of Christ our Lord.