I know it’s not quite what you imagined. But can you do some good with it anyway?
It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.
I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.
Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”
So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.
After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.
So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?
Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)
I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.
In April, Willoughby died.
I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.
Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.
I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.
I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.
Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?
Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.
Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.
And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.
Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.
Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.
Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.
In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.
And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.
It’s because there’s too much.
Like the Grand Canyon.
When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.
And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.
But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.
What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?
There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”
And that has become my life’s motto.
I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.
In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.
And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.
The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?
Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .
I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.
Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.
Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.
A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”
I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.
First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.
What do you know “too much” about after this last year?
My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.
A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.
On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”
What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?
Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.
I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.
And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.
So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).
Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)
Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.
So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?
I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.
Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.
Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.
I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.
I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.
I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.
A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.
Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.
So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.
We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?
We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.
Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.
I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.
I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.
Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.
Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?
If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.
I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.
That the world is feeling hard to show up for.
That smiles are a little harder to offer.
That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.
That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.
That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.
But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.
And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.
You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.
You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.
That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.
But not if you and I give up.
If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.
So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?
It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.
If I keep showing up, will you?
And will you really show up?
I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.
Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?
There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.
But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.
We need your message.
We need your encouragement.
We need your kindness.
We need your story.
We need you.
4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.
Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3
What if every time you spoke to someone, you first stopped to remind yourself that the person you’re about to speak to is a human, just like you? With feelings, with needs, with scars, with longings, with heart . . .
And that to be human is a miracle. Sometimes a powerful miracle. Sometimes a fragile miracle.
What if every word you spoke–every look you gave–to another human honored this shared divine humanness?
What would you say differently? What would you stop saying? What would you say more?
I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.
Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.
Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.
The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.
I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.
Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.
Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.
Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.
What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.
I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.
When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.
And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.
If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.
The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare
P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:
[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)
I grew up very smart, confident, and passionate. I thought very deeply, came to the right conclusions, and cared so much about everyone in my life that I had to help them see my conclusions, too. I never genuinely considered I might be getting stuff wrong until I had a big enough crush on a girl to listen when she told me I didn’t have all the answers.
What’s funny is that years later, the majority of big things I so confidently knew and so passionately tried to help other people understand–I no longer see the same way.
We all have our perspectives and our perceptions. We can’t help that they are very limited. And we can’t help but act according to them.
Seeing my own illusion
I remember one time I flew to another state to visit my recently married sister and brother-in-law. My sister and I had been extremely close friends for a long time and cared deeply for each other, so we were excited. But I was also there, more importantly, to visit the girl I was dating. The schedule was lopsided significantly in favor of girlfriend time. Later, my sister expressed that she was a little hurt by how the visit played out, and I just couldn’t understand. She supported my priorities but felt frustrated that it was very different than she expected. She had the impression that I was there to spend a few days with them, too. But I spent less time than expected with them, and when I was there I wasn’t exactly present. Again–and to my sister’s credit–she didn’t think my priorities were wrong. She just wished I had decided and communicated initially that I wouldn’t be spending much time with them. It would have saved her some disappointment. TO me, her feelings seemed a little selfish and unreasonable.
It wasn’t until years later when I experienced similar scenarios, but with roles reversed–I was the one with expectations too high, missing out on people I loved–that I finally understood that my sister was completely right. I wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t either. I was so sure she was seeing things inaccurately, but she wasn’t. And I just was not in a place with my focus and priorities at the time where I could truly see her perspective. But years later, when I was in her position, I also felt a little ignored, mislead, and taken for granted. And it didn’t feel good.
I was so sure. Saw things so clearly. And I was thinking very deeply and had the best intentions. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that there was a completely different way to look at it. And this is just one example. There are a hundred more, and I’m sure you have plenty as well. Times you took a dogmatic stand, only to look back some time later in embarrassment.
Do you see the old lady? Or the young lady? Which one is the right one? (If this question doesn’t make sense to you, google “Stephen Covey old lady.”)
The problem is not that I took a stand or believed what I believed. The problem is not that I acted on my perceptions. The problem was what happens when I don’t recognize that there may be other perspectives–just as valid, just as clear.
This idea gives a deeper meaning to the term “Self-Centered.”
Sometimes we do what seem to us to be the greatest, kindest, most caring thing. But because it’s born out of our narrow perspective, because our focus is completely on our own Self’s perception, without attention to another’s interpretation, we can leave a path of hurt and confusion. We can act passionately in one direction, completely missing the collateral damage we’re doing in another direction.
Why do we see many things so clearly, but so differently?
For one very simple reason: We’re different people. I’m not you and you’re not me. I grew up in an extremely black-and-white home, preoccupied with ethics and judging whether we’re getting things right or wrong. Maybe you grew up in a similar home, but experienced so much hurt that you threw out all standards as causing dysfunction and depression.
Or maybe you grew up in a very chill home where good intentions were assumed, self-esteem was encouraged, and time and energy were devoted to free creativity and expression of individuality. Maybe this was a positive thing. Or maybe there was too much obsession with freedom, and you couldn’t hold your siblings responsible for just being honest and treating you with respect.
I’ve had a quarter of a century of experiences, shaping my focus and my understanding–my perspectives and perceptions. I’ve had very unique experiences leaving me with unique needs and unique sensitivities, unique priorities and unique comfort zones.
Consider this example: Two people look at the same religious organization. The organization does a lot of good for people and gives a lot of hope, but there are a number of people involved in leading it for selfish reasons. One person sees it as a breeding ground for judgement, hurt, and disappointment. Another person sees it as a vehicle to bring hope to unfortunate and hurting people in the community. Both people are completely correct, but both people will think, speak, and act completely differently towards the organization.
This CAN’T and SHOULDN’T be avoided.
A simple solution is opening up your mind and starting to see everything through your neighbors’ lenses. Problem is, you’re not going to get their lens quite right, either. And even if you could, there’s another neighbor whose perspective you won’t have the time to consider as well.
Refusing to take a stand for anything just because you don’t know everything just results in a crippled world, a world where nobody can help each other. Maybe my help isn’t quite right.
Imagine a world where nobody stood up to slavery or persecution because there’s a chance the “other side” might see something you can’t see.
So what SHOULD be done?
What if we tried living every single day with a deep awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for the huge variation in yours and my perspectives? What if I always kept in mind that you may have just as clear a perception of something as I do, but you may be seeing it differently?
A few things may result…
- When it seems like I hurt you, but I know I wasn’t wrong, I’ll try to take the time to figure out why you’re hurting and see if we can fix it together.
- When you see that I’ve latched onto an idea that is bringing weakness and sadness into my daily life, like a self-defeating attitude about myself, you may be able to help me, because I may actually grant that you see a real thing in me that I’m not seeing.
- When I could do with a change of mind about a big subject, a respectful, constructive discussion can take place where we both come out better educated and appreciating each other.
- I don’t have a subconscious need to control everything, to make sure people are doing what I need or want them to do, to get you to live life my way, because I realize your way includes some strong and helpful perspectives I can’t give you.
- I can let you do you, with the peace of mind that all my solutions for you probably aren’t the right ones anyway.
- I can freely and happily admit that I am just doing my best and don’t have all the answers, instead of feeling like a fraud, trying to hide all my doubts and insecurities.
- I can ask for help because not having it all together is only a weakness to those who think they can have it all together.
At your funeral, people are going to remember you–people who have their own lenses.
Will they remember someone arrogant, who was sure they knew best, always focused on getting their own way, and always trying to fix other people?
Or will they remember someone humble, compassionate, and open-minded–someone who instead of judging whether others’ feelings were valid or invalid, just honored their feelings and beliefs as theirs? Someone who instead of trying to control the people they cared about just made sure to be there for them?