Something I read the other day set me thinking about a question that has troubled me for many years: is it possible to truly know another person? Graham Greene, the British novelist, seems to have thought that essence of his craft was how well he understood people, how clearly he could see what made them tick. Perhaps this only explains why my novels remain unpublished, but I think Greene was deluding himself, and I freely confess that I hardly understand people at all. After more than a decade of living with my wife I have come to think that I know her quite well, but even in our very close relationship I have learned surprising things in the past two years. I have two or three other friends that I might admit to knowing fairly well. Beyond that, ignorance.
The sad tale of EgyptAir Flight 990 brought on similar thoughts. People who worked with the co-pilot suspected of intentionally crashing the plane keep saying, "there is no way he could have done such a thing." These people knew him for years, but they seem not to have seen into his soul.
Every day I see people do things that simply baffle me. I've just learned of another impending marriage between two people who fight terribly and don t seem to make each other happy at all; what are they thinking? I listened to voter interviews during this past election with a mounting sense of bewilderment, wondering how people who seem uninterested in ideology or policy make up their minds about voting. Supposed intellectuals are able to convince themselves of things that are obviously not true, from the goodness of Stalinism to the reality of cold fusion to the absence of childhood in the Middle Ages. People commit murders over trifles, coach their children to lie in divorce proceedings, visit channelers, put magnets in their shoes, build pipe bombs in their basements, and abuse their children, and I don't understand any of it.
I have noticed that we tend to think we understand people better who are most like ourselves, but how do we know they are like ourselves? We can watch their actions and think, that is just what I would have done, but how do we know why they act as they do? Over the years and decades we could, I suppose, watch them do enough and hear them say enough to recognize a pattern, but even the friends I think are most like me have done things I would never do. Which are the actions that matter?
It always amuses me to hear a person described as complex, as if there were any other kind. Sure, some people have predictable responses to certain situations-- put me in a game and I will try to win. But what does that tell you about me? To a sociologist, I must look very much like a statistical norm. I live in a suburb with a wife, three children, and a cat, and I work in an office earning something close to the average for a fully employed college graduate. But are the things in my head anything like the things in anybody else's head? I doubt it, but I don't know, and I don't think anybody else does, either.
December 27, 2000
"My worthy friend, gray are all theories, and green alone life's golden tree."
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Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age