I used to know so much. I had a genius for reading people. Just give me a few moments to chat, and I had them all figured out. They were so transparent to my extraordinary powers of perception and discernment. Listen to these pronouncements I find in my journals from my twenties:
“I don’t wish to make myself to be above ‘the standard man,’ but I do feel I have always had an uncanny ability to know people to their depths in a very short time.” November 18, 1997
“I feel I have these gifts or abilities in my mind that make me feel unlike the rest of society or members of my species….somehow cut from a different cloth….I feel I can truly understand every man and his thoughts and feelings…” July 25, 1997
Wasn’t I great?
It wasn’t just that I believed I was unusually gifted at reading people. You hear in that second quote my sense that I was also, well, unusual. Of all these people I met–people that I was sure that I understood so well–I didn’t seem to be like any one of them. My quirks and gifts and troubles seemed to be all my own. There was a disconnect. For all of my ease in knowing them, they were unable to know me at all.
“I am destined to be a loner, for no one can understand the things that drive me.” July 7, 1994
And it really annoyed me when anyone had the audacity to claim that they understood me or, even worse, could predict my success or failure.
“…because he doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t know what’s inside, and he doesn’t know what I’m capable of. I want no one to ever throw me in a group with others, judged like others, or compared to others. I set my own standards based entirely upon myself, and I needn’t try to compare myself to anyone…” January 31, 1995
I certainly was special, wasn’t I? So sure that I could read everyone as easily as cartoon caricatures–I didn’t need to hear their whole story to know who they were–and equally sure that no one could ever take the measure of me.
The Verdict: I WAS SO WRONG!
It is amazing the lessons that come with age and experience. Some things that you are so sure of in young adulthood get exposed like ancient fossils with the passage of time. It seems to often be the case that the greater the certainty and conviction, the greater is the folly to be later revealed. We take ourselves so seriously early on, and then we learn–well, some of us learn–that it’s all a little more messy than we thought and that maybe we don’t know quite so much. Bob Dylan comes to mind: “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” Wise man, that Bob.
Anyway, I was wrong. I may have a gift for understanding what makes different people tick differently–I assume that most coaches, teachers, and therapists have that type of gift–but the years have humbled me and made me realize that a personality type or a single conversation only reveals so much and that I would do well to be mindful of how much I don’t know about a person’s story and the types of burdens they are carrying around with them every day (and the burdens specific to this particular day).
There are so many layers to each unique person in our lives, so many different screens–laid on top of one another–to peer through in order to truly see someone.
There are histories. These include our traumatic events and happiest moments, our educations, our relationships, and our habits built over time. These histories shape the way we see the world and craft our unique reactions to shared life events.
There are genetic and soul inclinations. These contributions from our ancestors and our spirits can be both good and bad. Addictive tendencies, an easygoing nature, a mental disorder (diagnosed or otherwise). I can’t think of ways I have raised my two kids differently from one another, but they sure come at the world in very different ways. One is more dramatic, one is more contemplative, one is more confident but the other more boastful, one fears this and the other fears that. They go their own road, seemingly called that way by something I cannot explain. They arrived on Earth this way.
There are present circumstances. Someone next to you in line at the store just got fired, and someone else is up for a promotion. Someone in your gym class just got a cancer diagnosis, and the person next to her just found out she is pregnant. One couple on the sidelines at the soccer game has to go home and tell the kids they are divorcing, and another couple is going to tell the kids they are moving. One of your co-workers will go home today, like every day, to a parent who is rapidly declining with Alzheimer’s Disease, while another co-worker will propose to his boyfriend. One of your child’s friends at school cannot afford lunch today, and another was sexually abused last night. One of your neighbors thinks the country is becoming great again and feels more free to express his racism, while another feels betrayed by the government and genuinely fearful for her rights and her safety. Did you know all of that? These circumstances–and a million more like them–will surely affect the behaviors of the people in your little corner of the world today, with a fresh new batch arriving tomorrow.
These histories, these genetic and soul inclinations, and these present circumstances combine to form a combustible cocktail that changes from one moment to the next. Each one of us is like a beaker of this volatile stuff filled to the brim, and we go around this busy, crowded world bumping into each other and spilling over onto one another, creating increasingly complex mixtures as we go. And none of us knows exactly what is in the other beakers that we will collide with throughout the day.
If I meet you today and have a few minutes of open conversation, I may come away with a strong impression of you and a desire to either connect with you again or steer clear of you. I may even think I really know you and have a good grasp of your story. But how much can I really know?
I have recently been reading a fabulous book by David R. Dow called Things I’ve Learned From Dying. In one section, the author describes listening to his client, who is on death row, tell about how, at the age of six, he (the client) narrowly escaped being murdered with a butcher knife at the hands of his deranged mother after she tripped and loosened her grip, allowing him a split-second to run into the bathroom, lock the door, and call 911. It is obviously a shocking and memorable moment, but what resonated most with me was the author’s takeaway from this retelling: “Here’s something I’ve learned: When someone tells you something inconceivable, and you know for a fact he isn’t insane, you need to give serious consideration to the possibility that the occurrence’s very inconceivability is the bitter proof of how little you know.”
I suppose that is the lesson I am learning, too, as I age. I just don’t know very much. And even if I hold onto my idea that I am gifted with an extra dose of discernment and empathy, that only says to me that none of us knows very much about each other. None.
It makes me think of the TV news interviews after just about every senseless murder. The family and neighbors almost always give the same type of response: “He didn’t seem like that kind of person.” “I never would have guessed.” “Just seemed like a regular guy.”
We don’t know. We simply don’t know.
I think each of us is capable of both extremes: the worst kinds of Evil and the greatest kinds of Good. Our histories and genetic inclinations can load the gun for either, and our present circumstances pull the trigger. And since we scarcely know any of those three factors–much less all three–for the people we meet each day, we have no right to be confident in judging someone else.
Hopefully instead of judgment, this lack of confidence will lead us to a greater empathy. That is something interesting–and tragic–that I see now about my younger self and the certainty I felt about knowing everyone’s motives, triggers, and insecurities. While it probably struck me at the time as a wonderful achievement in Compassion to own such insight into my fellow humans, my certainty undoubtedly led me to be lazy in my interactions and incurious about going further to test the possibilities of deeper relationships. I assumed I knew everything, and that shielded me from the truth: that there was so much more beyond my view. My self-proclaimed depth only made me more shallow.
Shallow lacks empathy.
Empathy is just about all it takes to be good for this world.
We need to hear each other’s stories. That is how we come together. It is how we see how similar we are. So much more similar than different. But when we keep ourselves distant from the stories–either through disdain for the “other,” laziness, privilege, or assuming we already know enough (or know everything, in my case), we not only lose out on the richness of new relationships and a bigger, more beautiful life, we also fail to be of service to others. We fail to be good and do good. We fail in our charge as humans: to make this place better for each other.
So, what can we do to bridge this divide? How do we make peace with the dual reality that 1) we have almost no idea of the burdens that others carry, and that 2) our ignorance–often willful–of each other’s stories is no less than a catastrophic failure of our species in our role as chief stewards of Planet Earth? What are we as individuals to do about it in our little spheres of influence?
It is my hope and my personal challenge to become both more humble and more curious. I want to be crystal clear about how little I know about the person in front of me, and then I want to go after that missing knowledge with a dogged determination. Even if the entirety of the story forever eludes me, surely I will have learned–and thus grown–in the process and will have improved my behavior in the world around me. I will better empathize with my fellow journeyers and therefore act better toward them.
In the end, that is really what I want out of this maturation and this growing awareness of my ignorance: I want to be a better person. Yeah, that’s about it. I just want to be a better person.
How about you? How well do you think you know the people you cross paths with every day? Open up your journal and consider your world. Do you believe you have a clear picture of the lives of the people in it? What gives you this level of confidence? Is it a natural gift of yours to see and know people? Have you done a lot of work to get to know these people and what they are living with? Do you imagine that their lives are almost exactly like yours? How does your degree of confidence about how well you understand them dictate the way you respond to their behavior in ordinary, everyday settings? When someone acts in an unusual or unexpected way–e.g., has an argument in a public place, cries openly, dresses uniquely, has lots of tattoos or piercings, has a mohawk or a mullet, is loud, speaks in a different language, insults you–how do you react to them? Are you quick to judge? Do you lead with compassion? Do you make fun of them, either aloud or in your head? Do you attempt to learn more about the person or situation, curious about the uniqueness? Do you just notice it and let it slide by? Are you proud of the way you react to these kinds of situations? Would you teach your children to react the same way you do? How well do you know your family and extended family? Do their actions ever take you by surprise and cause you to second-guess how well you actually know them? How about your friends? Your neighbors? At what distance out in your circle are you fairly sure you don’t really know what the people are going through? Using that line as your border, do you make a greater attempt to practice empathy for the people inside that circle or outside? Is that answer acceptable to you? On the whole, how compassionate are you? Do you think you would do better if you knew the people in your world at a deeper level? How curious are you about others’ stories? How aggressively do you seek out those stories? How likely are you to engage a stranger in a public setting? How often do you have what you would consider to be a “deep” conversation, even with loved ones, to better learn someone’s story? How often do you share your own story in one of those conversations? Which way is more within your comfort zone? Do you think you ever surprise people in your life with your thoughts or actions? Do you tend to believe that you know them better, or that they know you better? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well do you really know the people in your sphere of influence?
Open your heart,
P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get to know each other!
P.P.S. If this type of thinking appeals to you, I hope you will check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailer.