As a wordsmith I both hate and love it when reality casually throws up a phrase for which I would have given my gold crown to fashion. (Of course, this state of flummox doesn't stop me from using it as soon as possible, with the added benefit that I don't have to footnote it.) This happened the other day as I talked with a man updating the insurance map of the property where I work. He had to catalogue on the map any changes he found so that the company could know what its policy covered.
He explained to me, in more detail than I wanted, the importance of keeping tabs on how a property gets used, and used not just by the owner. "For instance," he pointed out, "if people come through a hole in the fence at the back of the property and cross the parking lot to get to the street, and that goes on long enough, you've got an easement, even if you don't have an official one on the map." The industry had a name for this phenomenon, and here the man unknowingly spoke poetry: "Ripening shades of title."
What a deliciously accurate phrase! Let it mull in the mouth for a moment, like a bite of just-ripe Bosc pear, and then taste its truth. What better captures the dynamic process of evolving into a human being -- that we become more human as our "shades of title," the claims we have upon each other as a consequence of being born, "ripen" into a sweeter empathy for one another.
But am I simply being carried away by felicity into believing something that isn't true, that is just another sloppy sentiment, like "We Are The World"? Let's test it. As I sit alone at my word processor, one thing is patently clear: I am not alone. The Marvelous Maria-Beatriz futzes in the kitchen; the traffic slurs on by. A block away people stream by in their cars or run to catch the 123 bus. But even if I were ensconced on the highest mountain, I would not be alone because physical proximity is not the issue. I or any of us can exist only if we are embedded in a thick matrix of human invention. Whether I like it or not, the quality of my life depends upon the company and kindnesses of strangers.
Which leads me to another truth: Everything I do, and everything everybody does, has a consequence, either helpful or harmful, for someone else. Think of this as the difference between a mosaic and an automatic transmission. As one of the tiles in a mosaic, I am certainly not alone; I have all my fellow tiles around me. Yet I am stuck; I can't even know what's happening five or six tiles over. The mosaic is a passive system. In an automatic transmission, though, motion creates changes through hydraulics; in the same way, human society, through its own labyrinthine system of pressures and responses, creates constant flux and morphing. These shifts, in turn, evolve "title," by the simple fact that no one is unaffected by what anyone else does. We have claims upon each other's existence whether there are six or six thousand degrees of separation.
Then there are the "shades." Like any color scheme, the "shades of title" run from dark to light. Nothing says that the claims people have upon each other must nourish or preserve. Nor does "ripening" always lead to the dusky glow of a full-juiced peach. In many places, for instance, the shades of title there are decidedly dark, and the ripening of these claims has led to genocide. Such infernal growth is not theirs alone — the world sometimes seems over-ripe with deadly claims.
But one thing is clear in looking at the this infernal garden: no one really wants a world like this. The actions of its players may fall within the category of "human" because they are done by humans, but morally, most people condemn them as "inhuman." What does that mean? It means that what many consider essentially human, as opposed to a simple categorization of human actions, takes on a different shade of title, one tilted toward compassion, responsibility, recognition of common aims and aspirations. And to "ripen" into this kind of human being requires effort, self-discipline, study, humility, a sense of humor, reduced ego — it is an acquired state, not one that comes naturally.
I suppose that a good society, one concerned about the shades of title each has upon each, would nourish that kind of ripening, that we all have "ripening shades of title" to each other, ties that bind even the remotest Inuit to the Namibian village elder. Or, more locally, that connect a carful of subway riders on a Friday morning heading into Columbus Circle to each other, no matter how much they avoid eye- and body-contact and shuffle along as if they are floating islands unconnected to the main.
Ripening means evolving. This our sole task as human beings; otherwise, nothing can really mean anything worthwhile.