I’ve always had an incurable curiosity about people, constantly being fascinated by individual personalities, how we grow and evolve throughout our lives, and how much the perspective we have of the world defines us. Those of us that are readers, writers, filmmakers, storytellers, etc. are constantly thinking about these things from the standpoint of fictional characters. Having a deep understanding of people and characters is something that all truly great story tellers seem to share.
But if we move away from the world of fiction, and think about the real people we actually know, especially those who are closest to us, how well can we really understand each other? Personally, I think, that for even the best judges of human nature among us, the answer is not very well at all. People are complicated.
In most of our relationships we often only get to know one version of someone. We only know who they are when they are with us. There are so many other versions of them, in different times, in different places, with different people, that we will never know. We are also hindered in our ability to truly understand another person, by the fact that we tend to see them how we want them to be. It’s human nature. We are especially prone to do this in romantic relationships. I like the line in the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert where she says, “In desperate love, we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place.” It’s so true that we tend to create roles for people to play in our lives, and this ultimately limits our ability to understand who they truly are. Perhaps this is why we sometimes feel like certain strangers can see us more clearly than some of the people we have known for years.
Another reason that understanding one other is so difficult is because people are always changing. People are constantly growing and evolving, sometimes gradually over time, and sometimes much more suddenly than we might think. It is often impossible for us to understand what is happening deep inside someone, and how that is impacting who they are, and who they will become.
One might say, if we can never really get to know each other, than what’s the point of even trying to get close to someone? But we must not forget that we don’t need to completely understand someone in order to love them, or be happy with them, or learn from them, or help them. There is a quote from a Philip Roth book that says, “Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.” I think that there is some truth to this. Sometimes the best thing things in life, and in love, come when we learn to embrace the mystery. Maybe it’s okay to accept what we can’t understand and allow people to surprise us.