I used to think I knew a lot.
About other people.
More and more, however, I am understanding that what I yet know, far outweighs what I do know. I see in myself and others, this overpowering need to have answers; this need to have knowledge, to fill in the blanks of life, of ourselves, of others, as if we were filling in an easy Sunday morning crossword puzzle.
Recently I witnessed a simple conversation that highlighted this point to me.
We were hiring someone at work and the question was asked if the individual being hired was a relative of someone else that worked with us due to both individuals having the same last name. The question was posed to a group of us and when no one answered it became specified to one person. We all turned to look at her as she glanced down, not answering, and when she raised her head I saw in her a look of panic, a look that suggested that she didn’t know but was going to answer anyway. I knew that look all too well because I have had it myself on many an occasion.
In the time it took for her to decide to answer, a follow-up question had been asked about something else and side conversations began to occur. She began to quietly say, “Yes, Jim (name has been changed) is her husband;” then feeling that she wasn’t being heard, she stated a little louder, “Yes, he’s her husband.” Her face became determined and convinced as if certainty was granted because she had said it a loud.
Others around acknowledged the answer and the person that had requested that information in the first place began to write it down. But just at that moment, the person who had actually interviewed the individual for employment stated, “No, it’s her brother-in-law. I just remembered – Jim is her brother-in-law, not the husband.”
The one who had made herself so certain after stating it was the husband, looked slightly embarrassed and taken a back as she quietly stated, “Oh, I thought it was the husband.” The conversation changed as other concerns arose; however, I remained thinking about the interaction.
It impacted me so, because, as I said before, far too often I have felt the overwhelming need to have the right answer that I would give one without really being sure if it was right. I was left wondering what it was in me that prompted this reaction. Was it pride? Was it insecurity? Was it fear of being seen as stupid? I can confidently say that at times it has been all three of these reasons and probably many others.
This was just a small example that really has no consequence. But what of the times in which our seeming certainties do have consequences, do cause damage or harm? My belief is that harm and damage occur when our certainties are about other people. We live in a world of rampant opinion – everyone has one and everyone believes their’s to be right. We also live in a world in which our access to the lives of others is often singular and contained in 140 characters or less on a Twitter feed. Combine the two and I believe us to be in dangerous territory.
What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know but we charge ahead with resolved confidence that we know it all. We speak, act, and talk in absolutes, in a belief that our opinions are fact and without question. I see the incident about the Arizona mother that made a horrible mistake in leaving her baby in a cart at a grocery store in a moment of distraction and possibly a moment that happens to us all, where our brains react according to pattern and because she went outside her normal pattern of putting her other children in the car last, she believed her baby to be with her in the car as she drove off. I see the way in which people with opinions and such small amounts of knowledge, voice judgment on both her action and character, they call names and demand punishment; as if perfection in all moments of everyday life is how they live, as if they have never made a mistake. It breaks my heart and I find myself wondering where has compassion gone?
I was introduced to a TED talk in school that has stuck with me over the last year and has influenced how I chose to view everyday situations, it is called The Danger of a Single Story. It is powerful and I invite you all to watch. I also recently have watched another TED talk by Jon Ronson about what happens When Online Shaming spirals out of control. Both of these highlight how our culture and society has become one that latches onto a single story about a culture, a country, or an individual, and we make assumptions and claim absolutes without understanding how much we really don’t know and what kind of damage we are causing by claiming that we do.
Yes, there are some single stories that are horrendous and awful and speak to the darkness in an individual’s character. I’m not suggesting that those be ignored, I am merely wanting for myself and others to use more caution before we place judgment; to seek to consider all that we don’t know before we hang onto what we do.
Let us seek for compassion for ourselves and others when mistakes are made. Let us solicit the ability to not have to have all the answers. It is not weakness nor is it stupidity to admit we don’t know or we don’t understand all there is to see and be informed about. We lose nothing in extending empathy. In fact, the more we are able to extend in empathy the greater our ability to accept the complexity that is the human experience.
We will falter, we will make mistakes. Pain will sometimes come to others and ourselves as a result of what we say and do, there is no way to escape that. It saddens me to know that I have caused pain in others, it has mostly been unintentional but it’s still pain. My faults are just as real as everyone else’s – I can be a horrible communicator, I can be jealous, I am sarcastic, I lose my temper, and on and on it goes; however, I’m also conscientious, observant, and genuinely filled with a love for others and a desire that whatever pain someone is feeling will be eased.
As human beings we are not a single story. We are not our best acts nor are we our worst deeds, often we are just trying to make our way through life somewhere in the middle.
My hope is that all of us, myself included, can find compassion for others and seek to question what we think we know.
Can you imagine the change that could make?
But hey, this is only my opinion …