How often has a friend said, “I just don’t understand him.” Sometimes the buddy promises one thing and does another. Perhaps he repeats mistakes time and again. Maybe he picks foolish friends or has crazy ideas.
With all life’s opportunities, a workable understanding of beings who share our basic physical appearance, language, and desire for happiness should be a cinch.
But we don’t manage that, do we?
Indeed, we go off the track in lots of ways.
Assuming we prefer to get better at perceiving the peopled planet as it is, here are some “outside the box” ideas for you to mull over.
Each of us claims personal insight, a slippery skill because we have blind spots. No one manages to figure out how to recognize himself as others evaluate him, at least not to the same extent.
Beginning with an incomplete grasp of our makeup, our part in relationships will not be fathomable in all aspects. Therefore, our best attempts to interpret acquaintances’ words and deeds can be off the mark.
Put into other words, imprecisions of our self-understanding hamstring our appreciation of human nature. Our species possesses ingenuity, intelligence, and intuition, but these qualities are placed within the messiness of each person’s awareness.
No one has lived any life but his own. Thus, our experience is the model from which we try to discern the lives of others.
All of us make an uncountable number of choices. As Mark Twain said, “It is a difference of opinion that makes horse races.” Boy, we have differences of opinion, wheelbarrows full.
Unthinkingly, we put our ideas and choices into a “This Makes Sense Library” lodged in our brain. The next fellow does too. Everyone owns one such compilation of bright and not-so-bright ideas, and none of the libraries are identical.
No one takes offense if contrasting decisions, preferences, or alleged knowledge involve ice cream flavors. Nor do we give such minor considerations much thought.
Not so for differences that pertain to where to live, who we love, the value and proper use of money, opposing political affiliations, or our favored deity. These dissimilarities might be troubling.
Our evaluations often assume we are logical folks. Seen through our eyes, it soon becomes apparent that when the other fellow differs too much from our point of view, he is the cause and might be a problem.
Generally, women and men are born with a need to think well of themselves or, at least, rank themselves above the bottom of any list. For example, a person chosen for the baseball team after everyone else may soothe himself by remembering contrasting talents that are superior to those picked earlier.
Such beliefs make life livable and not a permanent state of chagrin. There are limits to our self-persuasion, but few are without the capacity to boost their status a bit, at least in their mind.
Those souls walking on two feet also do an excellent job of rationalizing their behavior. To think you are a bloody mess — subject to the whims of emotions or actions you come to regret — creates greater unhappiness than most of us can endure.
Moreover, we overrate our rationality. We think our hold on reason renders us more clear-thinking than we are.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, likens man to a Rider who sits on the back of an Elephant. The person on top believes he is in charge of navigating this two-creature team.
The little dude represents our analytical or rational side, while the colossal pachyderm plays the role of our powerful emotional component.
Chip and Dan Heath describe the relationship between these two:
Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.
Despite the data supporting the description of these contending parts of man, few of us think we (the logical Rider) are at the mercy of the Elephant.
When faced with strong emotions about politics or religion, the data support the almost instantaneous flight of our analytic capacity. Feelings triumph with speed, while our rational side makes up reasons for our decisions almost as fast.
At the end of this match between rationality and irrationality, irrationality wins, but rationality thinks he has won and might not consider his emotional side a profound influence.
By the way, I realize you believe you are the exception to this formulation. Sigh…
All of the above leaves us in the following situation.
If we cannot bridge our divergence from the other, we become more likely to call him mixed up, stupid, or evil. Our self-evaluation, however, remains more or less intact. Unless we suffer from a compromising psychiatric condition, any questioning of our part in the world of “us and them” is minimized.
By this, I mean we find our internal mental condition more functional than someone else’s. Our self-protectiveness finds a way to comfort us whenever it can, except when the alarm bells ring and signal danger is ahead.
If our counterpart is seen as alarming, we tend to classify him as bad in his entirety.
The more troubling the differences we perceive between ourselves and the other guy, the harder to fathom why he thinks and acts as he does.
Condemning him is easier than understanding him.
Thus, we achieve reassurance if we think he and those like him are the sources of much misery.
Holding tight to this impression is simpler (though not easy) than reconsidering the possibility of our role as a contributor to the difficulty.
For all the evidence of kindness, courage, sacrifice, creative genius, inspiration, and medical advancement, few would doubt that we can also be our own worst enemies. You need only think of war, genocide, deceit, betrayal, religious persecution, slavery, and our susceptibility to conspiracy theories.
On balance, humans are well-rationalized, which is better for us. Reality offers perpetual discomfort if one is always looking at oneself, giving microscopic attention to our every thought, and wondering whether they could or should be otherwise.
On the other hand, if we desire fewer wars, an absence of discrimination, reduced political friction, a liveable climate, and well-functioning democracies, it might be helpful to get past some of our self-delusions.
The pain of seeing ourselves would be part of the cost.
I’m not suggesting the people who we find challenging are correct in their judgments and behavior or that they are pure and we are not. Still, we have encountered the only “enemy” we can take on daily every time we face the mirror.
It won’t be easy for you or me to do this.
“We have met the enemy, and they are us,” as Walt Kelly added to the fund of written wisdom in his Pogo comic strip in 1970.
Sorry, but the store where you can purchase this kind of self-awareness charges enormous prices and offers no free lunch.
Nonetheless, I wish I had the address.
The top cartoon is called “A Misunderstanding.” It was the work of Samuel D. Ehrhart and came from Puck Magazine on February 20, 1901. The second image of “A Little Misunderstanding in Gdansk” was photographed by Artur Andrezej. Finally comes “Face Off” by Aaron. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.