Someone once said that we are all trying constantly to tell our story, in spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious, ways. But few of us are able to recognize the story, so the story goes unheard. We see with blind eyes. We hear with deaf ears. All we see is the surface of the other, and much of what we see is only projection of our own experience.
When I was younger I tended to see people in black and white, by which I don’t mean racial distinctions, but the simplicity of mere silhouettes without a perception of depth. Or what depth I thought I saw was uncomplicated by nuance, out of any context but my own feelings about them, framed in my preconceptions and judgments. I saw mostly how I felt treated by them and formed judgements about what that meant about who they were.
Here’s an example that comes to mind. There was a man I worked with, back in my 20’s when I was trying to become a respected member of an executive team, who relentlessly talked to me in teasing tones, treating me alternately as a potential sexual object and an inconsequential girl. The kind of behavior and language he used, especially about women, framed the way I saw him. I was disgusted by him, thought I “knew” what he was: a southern “old boy,” wickedly smart, but shallow, callous, loud and boorish, a man to be avoided. In one sense he did behave in those boorish ways, and he may have been some of that, but it was not all of who he was – maybe not even the largest part, although I’ll never know.
Eventually I rose to executive status and was serving our company’s corporate clients well, and he had moved on to become vice president at the corporation where I was my company’s liaison. One day, after the marketing group meeting, he took me to lunch. To my surprise his whole demeanor toward me had changed. Over lunch he told me what he’d really thought about me when I’d first joined the firm where once we’d both worked.
He said he’d “seen too many women sleep their way to the top.” He illustrated by pointing to a woman we both knew who had had an affair with the man who became company president. Soon after, she’d been elevated to vice president. My nemesis/client/now-friend thought she’d climbed past him for no other reason than her sexual relationship with a powerful man. He said, “You can’t compete with pillowtalk.” He’d come to resent women in business because they use sex, he said, to get ahead of more qualified men. He said he had misjudged me when I came to the company with my ambitious agenda. He realized now that I’d advanced on the strength of my skills. Then he went on to give me career advice. He thought I was in a dead-end job, suggested that if I wanted to find a better position he’d be happy to make some connections for me and offer a reference.
It was an unusually frank, friendly, and honest conversation – the first we’d ever had of that kind and the last personal conversation, as it turned out. But that day I realized I had misjudged him. I began to see a whole person instead of an enemy, a man with dimensions he kept carefully hidden. His behavior toward me had been egregious and his judgments were not particularly wise in personal matters, but he was more than I thought he was.
Back then I thought that what you see is who they are. Now I know that all of us are much more complicated than that. We are not mere silhouettes, black and white shadows in a simple frame. I’ve grown up enough to realize what a great mystery we are to each other, and even to ourselves.
We are complex, complicated creatures, marked by unique experiences. We each have found ways to protect ourselves from the traumas that life has meted out to us and from the insecurities that threaten us. We can be at once many contradictory things. We may have given in to the worst impulses and plans, but that is not the whole story.
This comes together for me in three important take-aways:
- there is far more about each person that I don’t know than what I actually do;
- each of us is living out a story that, if we knew it, would change how we see and treat them; and
- there is something in each of us that needs to be forgiven, and there is something in each of us that can and ought to be appreciated, possibly even cherished.
Now, if only I could keep my eyes open to these things with everyone I encounter!