The Mystery of Being You
It is fascinating to ponder the fact that each person we encounter in our day to day lives carries around with them a rich, complex and largely unknown inner self. A past and history that is hidden from us. While we have access to their outward appearances and what is externally communicated to us, we are restricted from knowing their ruminating thoughts, deepest fears, secrets and internal monologues. We do not know how their childhood and life experiences impacted what type of person they became or influenced how they see the world.
Even with those who we know most intimately, we are distanced by a degree of separation. Language, while useful, never fully conveys the intricacies of one’s inner experience. There is always a gap between our interior and exterior lives. A sense of something unknown – a mystery.
No one can truly know what it is like to be you.
Yet, it is so easy to pass judgement or criticize when someone disappoints us or things don’t work out the way we would have liked. We can harshly condemn one’s character and disposition based on anecdotal situational events. We use limited information to make broad condemnations about another’s moral failures.
Charity of Interpretation
Our default setting is to interpret events in a self-centered manner, expecting that the actions of others align with our narrow interests. However, how often do we genuinely try to look at the world from ‘someone else’s shoes.’ Do we make an honest attempt to empathize with them and understand things from their unique point of view?
After all, we all have our own misgivings, flaws and bind spots. In this spirit of mutual understanding, philosopher Alain De Botton encourages us to adopt a ‘charity of interpretation.’
As he explains in his book The School of Life: An Emotional Education,
generous onlookers must make a stab at picturing the overall structure of what might have happened to the wretched being before them. They must guess that there will be sorrow and regret beneath the furious rantings, or a sense of intolerable vulnerability behind the pomposity and snobbishness……..They will remember that the person before them was once a baby too.
Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions, we can be earnest in our attempt to give our transgressors an empathic interpretation of events. This advice echoes the famous Stoic maxim that while we ultimately don’t control how external events unfold, we always can control how we interpret them.
Perhaps our partner’s anger is a response a stressful day at work where they were given unreasonable deadlines from their boss.
Maybe, the driver who cut you off on your way to visit a friend was rushing urgently to the hospital to transport a sick relative.
If our benign assessments of the situation are inaccurate, so be it. Kindness and compassion may not always be reciprocated to us by others in return. However, having this optimistic attitude will benefit us in the long run. What good does it do to remain attached to resentment, jealously or greed?
Rather than judge mercilessly, we must first seek to truly understand.
As the late writer David Foster Wallace reminds us in his iconic commencement speech This is Water, we always have the freedom of choosing alternative ways of making meaning from events. This requires us to cultivate self-awareness and the capacity to think critically and question our automatic judgements. As Wallace states,
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.
The value of the liberal arts education, he argues, is to develop the ability to empathize with others. It provides us a means to understand different perspectives, opinions and world views. Great literature enables us to sympathize with different cultures and gain insight into the complexities of human nature.
None of us are perfect. Human behavior is influenced by a myriad of different factors, some of which are unknown to us. The world is much more nuanced than our own limited values.
We would all make our limited time here on earth just a bit more beautiful if we practiced empathy and compassion.
You can view more of my writing on my personal blog at A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life – In Search of Inner Freedom
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