I read This is Water by David Foster Wallace in a one-hour sitting at a Barnes & Noble cafe. I had listened to the commencement speech on YouTube years before. I remember the words feeling vaguely meaningful. Having read the words now, after listening to them, they still feel vaguely meaningful.
This is the most important lesson I took away from the speech:
People are as complex in their own lives as I am in mine.
This is an idea I’ve been struggling with for years. I used to think I was so unique and intellectual because I’d spend hours thinking and writing in a journal. (Pretentious Me type of thought: I mean, everyone else is too busy tweeting about celebrities to actually use their brain and a pen and paper.)
When I looked at other people, beautiful, easy-going people, I imagined they were just that: beautiful and easy-going. Simple people, simple-minded people. What could they know about how it feels to be thoughtful and complex?
I was Instagram-stalking, for lack of a better term, when I came across the profile of a girl I used to dismiss in college. She was beautiful and popular, one of those simple and simple-minded people. She posted a picture of a page in her journal. Suddenly, she was thoughtful and complex like me. She has thoughts and a journal, and she shares those thoughts, like me.
Or maybe: neither of us are complex and intellectual. Maybe we’re both just normal fucking people who happen to have thoughts and paper. That idea didn’t comfort me. The idea that both of us are complex was better, in a way.
After that discovery, it’s been hard to judge others as “good” or “bad”. What I see in others is a reflection of my own experience and has nothing to do with who they actually are. I wanted to feel important and unique, so I made this girl simple and simple-minded. I’ve wanted to be recognized as a compassionate person, so I make people seem selfish and self-centered.
In actuality, confining that girl, myself, and anyone else to a profile (like ‘simple’ or ‘selfish’) is incredibly unfair. Even profiling someone as ‘complex’ is problematic. But I also think it’s kind. It allows people space. If I think someone has done something hurtful, I’m not allowed to reduce them to being “a hurtful person”. They’re a complex person who, in this instance, behaved in a way I perceive as hurtful.
I allow them space: Maybe the hurtful action was the lesser of two evils. Maybe they’ve been hurt so much they feel the need to be the one causing hurt this time. Maybe they truly don’t see the action as hurtful.
This is all to say: I know nothing, and we all know nothing, of other people. We can’t know how much thought goes into every word or action or how someone presents themselves (maybe as beautiful and easy-going). We can’t know how much thought doesn’t go into words, actions, or presentation.
What we can know is how complex we are in our own right. We each do things with so much thought, and so little thought. And we can learn to extend that right to be complex to every single person we meet at every encounter.