Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

People Change

When my wife and I got married, she and I decided we would both have her last name as our shared surname. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and you’re welcome to read some of that here if you’d like. When people found out, the reactions were many and varied. You’re joking, right? You’re upending tradition! That’s odd. That’s so cool! I’ve never heard of that before, but now that I think about it I wonder why more people don’t talk about that when they get married.

I can’t recall a single person who was totally neutral or disinterested–everyone had an opinion of some sort. Though some of the opinions were shocking to us, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a very rare human being that goes through life without ever judging, critiquing, or stereotyping everyone else around them. As soon as you meet someone new, you begin to form an opinion and an impression of them. That impression doesn’t change much after the first few encounters.

Because most people want the impression to stick. When you can put other human beings in neat little boxes that you made, you feel a sense of control and understanding. The world is complex, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes confusing. If you can condense the people in your life into impressions that fit in manageable little boxes, then they will be one less thing that can change and surprise you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.

But the reality is that people will always change. Change is one of the most constant, real features of the universe we live in. It’s the reason we all need to find our lifeline: the thing or things that give us grounding and perspective no matter what’s going on or how chaotic it feels. Permanently packaging other people into oversimplified boxes should never be one of the ways you try to handle and minimize the ever-present change you’ll encounter.

People will change names. Change hairstyles. Change hometowns. Change career aspirations. Change hobbies. Change worldviews. Change their attitude and emotional style. Change their fashion. And a million other things. Other people’s change will constantly blow up your boxes. If you don’t acknowledge and accept it, you’ll be working with a stale and distorted version of them. That’s not healthy for you or them.

Sometimes people change for the worse; sometimes for the better. That’s not really for you to judge. If you’re close to them, and they’ve told you they trust your perspective and input, maybe the time will come when you two dialogue about how life is going and what you think about how it might go differently. Even then, it’s ultimately their life to live as they see fit, and you have to be OK with that.

More often than not, it won’t be your place to give any commentary at all. You should simply affirm their exploration of who they are in whatever way they are trying to realize their potential and happiness. We all should be exploring, trying, failing, learning. It’s deeply hypocritical if you allow yourself to do so but come down hard on others for changing and growing.

Celebrate your friend’s new hairstyle. What is it to you if it’s a color or cut you feel uncomfortable with? Celebrate your relative’s decision to strive for a career as an artist instead of a career as a scientist. Celebrate your neighbor feeling more confident as they exercise more, eat better, and improve their health.

Perhaps sometimes you feel unsettled by others’ change because it reminds you of the change you haven’t made. Instead of trying to cram people back into the box you made for them, welcome their change and use it as inspiration to finally do what you keep telling yourself you’ll do. Change is not a zero-sum game with all the other human beings on this planet. You don’t need to criticize or undercut someone else so that you can get a leg up.

No matter what, people change. Maybe you need to change how you handle that reality.

How to Adult: Find Your Lifeline

Do you ever feel like nothing makes any sense? Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time with your job or school or a relationship and wonder what am I doing with my life?

When that happens, what do you lean on? When everything feels like a chaotic, depressing swirl around you, what do you grab onto to steady yourself and move forward?

The reality is that there are moments in life–sometimes weeks or months at a time–when everything does feel like a disheartening mess and you’re not sure how to carry on. You’re stuck in a job that you hate. You find out someone close to you isn’t the person you thought they were. You develop a health complication that limits what you’re able to do.

No worldview can fully explain why situations like this happen to every human being that’s ever lived on this planet. The so-called problem of evil and the prevalence of pain, heartache, struggle, and loss have confounded even the most brilliant minds for millennia. There are no easy answers or magic solutions.

Which is not to say that there isn’t anything we can do about it. Surely some kind of footing is better than free-fall. Some kind of lifeline is better than drifting away in uncertainty, worry, and sadness. We each need to find our lifeline.

They’ll all be a bit different. For me, it’s my wife. No matter what else is going on, no matter how hard or bewildering things get, I find solace knowing that at least we’ll be going through it together. My wife is my constant, my lifeline, even as other things are continually changing and often confusing or too much to bear.

Maybe for you, your lifeline isn’t a person but a habit or hobby–like hiking, woodworking, or writing. Or something more contemplative or spiritual: books, videos, or meditative practices that help you explore meaning and your place in the world.

The times in our life of confusion, disappointment, doubt, and pain aren’t going away. These are the more difficult parts of being human, and there aren’t any easy or logical solutions to engineer them out of existence. We all must find our lifelines, and when you do you’ll at least have something constant you can come back to for relief and reflection in the midst an ever-changing and often overwhelming world.

 

Humans and Nature: Our Place in the World

In 1870, an expedition entered the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. There had been unsubstantiated rumors of remarkable natural features there, and so a team was put together to go explore and report. Early on, a man by the name of Truman C. Everts was separated from the group and went missing. None of the rest of the group knew if he survived. Initially, they rode around on their horses trying to find him. They were unsuccessful. As they continued to travel through the area, they left clues and supplies in the hope that Everts was still alive.

He was, in fact, but just barely. Over the next several days after going missing, Everts would find himself clinging to life through a whirlwind of what the wilderness could throw at him. His horse ran away with nearly all of his gear. He spent a night in a tree with a lion waiting underneath. He suffered severe frostbite on his feet. He took refuge next to some of the hot geothermal features, only to accidentally break through the surface of one of them and scald himself. 150 miles from the nearest settlement, Everts began hallucinating, promising himself that he wouldn’t die in the wild.

37 days after being separated, he was found on a hillside. With little to eat, he weighed just 50 pounds. Burned, frostbit, emaciated, delirious, he had barely survived. He slowly recovered, later writing a popularly consumed account of his lonely struggle in the elements. He prophesied that one day soon that area would be made comfortably “accessible to all,” and that when that day comes, “…I hope, in happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such mingled glories and terrors.”

How should we think about nature? How do we think about nature?

The complex, decades-long march of technology has allowed us to comfortably settle into robust homes and cities, and most of the world seems easily “accessible” and safe. If we were to drive through Yellowstone National Park today, we would barely give it a second thought that at one time it would take all of the human ingenuity and willpower possible to survive through the often uncompromising harshness of the environment.

Is the natural world a kind of frontier? Most of the early European settlers of America thought so. Inspired by a Garden of Eden, providential vision for a “New World,” the continent seemed to be precisely what the book of Genesis describes–wilderness and waste–ready for them to cultivate and make flourish. They, of course, were either oblivious to or disregarded the indigenous communities–countless, diverse Native American tribes–that had been living on and with the land for centuries. If America was ordained by God to subdue, it was given to someone other than the Europeans long before.

Perhaps nature is primarily a romantic thing–a more John Muir kind of spirituality rather than a biblical one. There are mundane places and then there are transcendent places. Places like Yosemite, for example, that are a sort of secular cathedral where aesthetics, vastness, and remoteness are praised. In this view, true nature entails remarkable places that we choose to go into and out of to elevate the soul.

Or, maybe nature is only just a vast storehouse of resources–something to think of in utilitarian terms. Everything that is there–water, trees, animals, and the rest–are for our excavation and exploitation. A biological warehouse of sorts, for whatever endeavors we have in mind.

Notice that all three of these conceptions put human beings above everything else. There is us, and then there’s nature, whether it’s to be tilled like Adam and Eve, for spiritual transcendence, or for utilitarian use. Us and nature is another binary–a variant of us and themapplied to the world in which we live. We see ourselves as something more than nature: something higher, something else–a type of being that can use nature (whatever it’s best used for) as we please.

Missing, of course, is the simple realization that human beings are themselves one among many kinds of animals. A rational, self-conscious, complex animal, to be sure. But ultimately a creature that is a part of nature–not something separate from it. This kind of understanding might be called the ecological view of nature. Nature is to be viewed as a dense structure of relationships, of “complex, interpenetrating systems,” to use Jedediah Purdy’s description. His book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, outlines these four common conceptions of our relationship to nature: providential, romantic, utilitarian, and ecological.

Though it’s a relatively recent way of understanding nature, we need to take the ecological view because we live in a time when human activity impacts the natural world more completely and more dramatically than ever before. We are inseparable from the environment in which we live. It’s not us and nature, it’s just this. We need to realize that our attempts to master the natural world have not brought pure progress, and that because everything is related to everything else in complex ways, we need to be thoughtful about how any of our activity may harm or destroy in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Something here can significantly alter another thing over there.

Our supposed mastery has veiled us from the intense Truman C. Everts kinds of experiences of nature that now occur mostly only for hardcore outdoors people and survivalists, humans who’ve wandered off the beaten path and gotten lost, or people who’ve been tossed into a wild place in some kind of a disaster. But we are in nature all of the time. It’s not just awe-inducing vistas like Yellowstone or Yosemite. And it’s not just endless trees in a forest somewhere out there seemingly there to be cut down and transformed into “things that are actually useful.”

Nature always surrounds us. And we are, at all times, nature ourselves–embodying and impacting the whole interconnected thing in profound ways. How we think about ecosystems and animals and natural resources and the climate and ourselves as a relatively new species trying to survive on this planet is important. A proper understanding of nature and our place in the world is vital. There’s just this. Let’s think about how we fit in with the rest of it all.

 

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.

 

How to Adult: Staying Informed

With the amount of time we’re all spending online, you’d think it would be basically inevitable that we’re well-informed about what’s going on in the world. Constant connection, theoretically, should lead to awareness.

And that’s true some of the time. Major events kind of pop up everywhere. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November, for example, appeared on everything from entertainment shows like Extra to The Economist to friends’ grieving Facebook posts. There was reflection and mourning across nearly every platform.

But most current events do not have such a sudden impact across the world. They burn slower or smaller, and require deliberate attention to notice them and follow their progression.

Can you name all of the presidential candidates still running? Could you quickly summarize the situation in Syria and the migration crisis to a friend? Do you know what the Zika virus is and who it’s affecting? Can you articulate how climate change is disproportionately impacting poor people? If you nailed all of these, give yourself a pat on the back.

For the rest of us, it’s not entirely obvious what’s happening in the world and how to stay in-the-know.

Traditional news media–like the nightly news on television or an editorial in a newspaper–do not have the audiences they once commanded. When is the last time you watched or read one of these?

Even a news pillar like the New York Timeswhich has a successful digital version to go with its long-running print newspaper, seems to be an afterthought to media providers geared for more pop culture-savvy viewers: BuzzFeed, Mashableand others.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are days when we would rather think about how delicious guacamole onion rings must be, or how adorable baby polar bears are, than the weightier things going on.

And with the surplus of content and creators, there are voices, perspectives, and issues at the forefront that never have before. This is awesome.

The potential to become more aware has absolutely been unlocked by our connectivity. But we have to actually do a little work to get there. Food porn and cute animals can crowd out the more profound stuff.

So how can you stay well-informed? Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Find some hard news sources that don’t bore you to death. You don’t have to watch C-SPAN unless you want to watch C-SPAN. But Facebook and Twitter can’t be anyone’s only entry point to current events.

A few that I follow regularly are NBC News (nationally and in the Los Angeles area), The Guardian, and NPR. You might also consider following a source like The Associated Press on Twitter for significant breaking stories. Make sure you’re getting a good balance of things happening locally in your own city and country, and world news much farther away.

(2) Cultivate a breadth of commentary about current events. You’re looking for sources that go beyond outlining the basic facts (that’s what the things in (1) are for), to discuss their context and meaning. Don’t just gravitate to voices you agree with. Find ones that challenge or even contradict your worldview and beliefs. Choices for these are nearly endless. Some that I look at regularly are: The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Gawker and Gizmodo, Arts & Letters Daily, and SlateYou’ll find your go-tos in no time.

3. Go Deeper than Perceptions with current events. Question easy narratives and simple labels to see if there’s more going on below the surface. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist. But oftentimes there’s more to the story than what’s being presented to you. After journalists and content creators have done their work, this is your chance to reflect on what you took away from what happened and how that fits into the context of the world as you understand it.

4. When you’ve digested it all yourself, talk about it with other people. Conversation is the way to shared awareness and understanding. When you bring it up, it might be the first time someone else has heard about it. Or they may have a completely different perspective than you that you should patiently listen to and consider. We’re all in this together, and we should all be talking about what’s happening around us and what we’re going to do about it.

Do these seem like things you can do on a regular basis? Do you already do them? Are there other habits you think are important for staying informed week-to-week?

An essential part of finding your way as an adult is knowing what’s going on in the broader society around you. You start to figure out how you fit into our complexly interconnected world, what people and forces are shaping that world today, and what you can do to make a difference. Staying informed is necessary. The world would be a more interesting and better place if we all knew a little more about what’s happening in it. And now you know some good places to start.

Go Deeper than Perceptions

We live in a perceptions are reality kind of world.

On the drive home the other day, I started making a right turn after the light turned green. A couple people who had been chatting on the corner suddenly decided to push the pedestrian walk light and go. I was already passing through their crosswalk, and came quite close while they were trying to cross the street. From their perspective, I probably appeared reckless–even malicious–some asshole who doesn’t know how to drive, endangering pedestrians. As I continued driving down the street I could see both of them in my rear-view mirror with middle fingers raised high. It was completely unintentional. If I had been playing it as safely as possible I could have waited another 5 or 10 seconds after the light changed to see if they were going to go from talking idly to walking across the street. It would have prevented the whole thing. But once it happened, it colored their entire perspective of who I was and what I’m like.

Our understanding of other people and the world we inhabit is primarily at the surface. As soon as we start to create a narrative about something, it’s hard for the story we’re telling ourselves to change–even if there is new information or contradiction.

Think about the people you work with. Unless you are good friends with them outside of work, your idea of who they are and how they operate is most likely shaped by a few, obvious surface features. The football team they like. How often they get drunk. How their work ethic appears. What kind of romantic relationship they’re in. If they have kids. Unless you’re really close and openly converse with each other about anything and everything, the person you’re interacting with at work is primarily just a perception of who they are and not the full-fledged human being.

The perceptions, the streamlined narratives we create based on a few features, are part of our human nature. We make them about other people, events in the world, and the rest of the things that confront us, because they help us boil it down to categories we can understand and pieces we can chew. As I’ve written before, us and them, right and wrong, and other categories like that, feel good and helpful because it turns a complex world into a (supposedly) understandable one. But that’s not a very enlightened level of understanding.

Rarely is the world as neat as clean categories and obvious observations. Perceptions often lie. We like them, and use them for other people because we want to make a judgment about who they are, file it away in our brain, and move on to other things. We have a version of them we can grasp and gameplan for. But when it comes to ourselves, we’d prefer to think we are exceedingly complex, and that few people (if anyone) understand the real me. I didn’t feel I was very well understood when I was getting flipped the bird. I definitely could have done things differently, but that situation didn’t encapsulate who I am–the apparent asshole.

Perhaps this explains the intrigue and popularity of a show like Making a Murderer. Through a very patient filming process, and expert editing to convey all of the nuance, we come to see as the audience that the immediate perceptions of criminal and victim, good and bad, law-enforcer and law-breaker, innocent and guilty, are not always true, helpful, or easily distinguished. We come to see that a few surface judgments about socioeconomic class, grooming and appearance, and minor indiscretions in the past quickly turn into a rich narrative about how someone is “evil incarnate,” an immense danger to society, and the obvious perpetrator of a crime that there’s actually little evidence for (evidence that may have even been tampered with or planted). If you haven’t seen the show you should watch it, and pay particular attention to how clean-cut the story about Steven Avery is in the media and prosecution’s telling, versus the kind of detail you get from his interviews with the filmmakers, interviews with family, and the evidence from a more objective viewpoint. How does the perception of Steven Avery in the public eye match up with the real Steven Avery (as best we can tell from everything we’re shown)?

Perceptions are too easy. If we don’t want others’ view of us to be oversimplified, we shouldn’t want to have and hold oversimplified ones about other people either. Living off of perception creates everything from brief interpersonal conflict–like the pedestrians I passed too closely–to getting someone wrongfully imprisoned once–if not twice–for a huge chunk of their life. We should expect more than this from ourselves and from each other.

So dig. Go deeper. Look and listen patiently. Go beyond how someone or a situation first appears to what’s actually being said and done. How might the person or thing be being misconstrued–in your own mind or publicly? Push through the perceptions you have, and see if there are pieces that you missed. Your co-worker’s life story is probably a lot more complex (and interesting) than you think.

Have you fully examined things closely yourself? Or did you quickly form an opinion based on hearsay or one side of the issue? Something coming to you only through the media or only through someone you like has already probably skewed it in a particular direction.

Talk with people who disagree with you. Listen to their view of things, and thoughtfully give it the best consideration to be right and closer to reality before you begin critiquing it and breaking it down.

Go deeper than perceptions.