To a certain degree, this is natural. Every day we take certain things for granted — the chair won’t break once we sit on it, the bottled water is potable, the stranger we’re shaking hands with is not a sociopath. With these instantaneous judgments settled, we can spend our time pursuing other, more complex questions. But actually, our effortless habit of presuming the conditions of other people easily becomes questionable ground for how we treat them. Maybe it’s too easy to square people off into a mental database of passions, lifestyles, or patterns of thinking. Too many times, I’ve been immeasurably wrong and shaken up by an inaccurate assumption, which I only realize I made after it came crashing down. I wonder, if I had come to the table knowing I didn’t know any of the cards being played, would I have been less critical? Less demanding? Less harsh?
One evening last week, a friend from several years ago approached me to chat. Our brief conversation turned to the topic of one of our older mutual friends. So far, normal. But within moments, I found myself shocked at what I was hearing — namely, our mutual friend’s attitude toward me now. I couldn’t believe how taken aback I was. Before that moment, I hadn’t considered that our friend could think of me that particular way. And yet, there it was — a part of the world that existed, that was beyond me, and that reversed the logic with which I had understood that person for years.
By no means is this ignorance an isolated incident. Some of our friends are going through the hardest times of their lives at this very moment, but no one would ever guess. Others are watching family members suffer, but are coping peacefully in quiet. Ultimately, these are extraordinary circumstances being contained in our seemingly normal lives. I used to think they happened only unusually, on television or in the movies. But the most bizarre and intricate dramas are unfolding in the lives around us all the time, even if we’re never let in on the secrets. Most surprising are the events we learn of in past tense. A friend of mine, for example, spent last year dealing with some issues, though I didn’t find out until this past weekend. At that point, every seemingly casual conversation we had shared before was changed in meaning immediately.
The world’s hidden unevenness of information isn’t relieved, either, by our uncanny ability to smile away “hard times.” In fact, we’ve become the ultimate traitors of our own issues with smiles and Hemingway-esque “Good, wonderful, alright!” responses. I believe laughter has the power to heal emotional wounds and bad memories. But I’m starting to see how well it aids denial, too, undermining graveness when it’s falsely done. For everyone else, this means that even when we are aware of things happening in other people’s lives, the significance might fly right over our heads.
Information is asymmetric. We will never have complete access to the back-stories of all of the people around us, whom we strive to figure out and understand in totality. Unfortunately, this goes in contrast with the modern man’s pursuit of godlike knowledge of the world and everyone around them. Indeed, sometimes we even let ourselves feel authoritative enough to disapprove of other people, speak condescendingly to them or complain about them in general. But I wonder how presumptuous this behavior is, when we seldom know what complications are coloring their life at that very moment. If we knew that we actually know very little, would we be more patient? Would we be more forgiving? More loving? Or, perhaps the bigger question: would we choose to change our behavior at all?
The students walking past us in the halls and sitting next to us in class are all going through any number of things in their life. We won’t and don’t know. The team member who shows up irritatingly late to meetings, the frustrating rambler in section, the overcompensating intellectual, the relationship strategist or whoever we allow ourselves to be offended by — they all have a story behind them, whoever they are at this point in time.And after all, who am I to assume otherwise? For any stranger and acquaintance in my life observing any number of unknown things in his or her life right now, I’m trying to remember that the only thing they should be getting from me is the benefit of the doubt. It’s a small thing — or maybe the best thing? — that everybody really deserves.
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