Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Amnesty

Think of all the people you’d say you know. Not just the ones you live with or talk to every day - everybody, no matter how well you know them or whether you like them or not. What percentage would you say you’ve had substantial interaction with in the past three to six months? By “substantial” here, I mean an exchange that displays or reveals people’s personal qualities: that is, not just small talk. I would guess that percentage isn’t very high for most people. There are a great many people I haven’t really hung out with or talked to much in two, five, ten, even fifteen years or more, and if I were asked whether I knew them personally I would still say yes. And with the rise of social networking, it’s even more true now.

What this means is that the conceptions we walk around with about a great many people we know  - the majority - are seriously out of date. While I think it’s probably true that most of our basic personality doesn’t change too much throughout life, there are just so many roads we travel, in our lives and in our minds. Thousands upon thousands of changes big and small conspire to shape what we are right now. Some are visible to the outside world, but many we keep to ourselves or only reveal to our closest fellow travelers.

And these changes, even profound ones, can occur very quickly sometimes. You meet a stranger and one thing leads to another and you’re never the same. You buy a house, get a pet, become a parent. You read a book or see a movie or experience art that changes how you think and feel. You discover a new pursuit that really drives you and becomes central to your life. You get rich; you get poor. You travel the country or the world, which cannot help but give you a perspective you didn’t have before. You develop a new far-reaching habit, either a good one or a bad one. You get sick, or narrowly escape death, or something distressing happens to a loved one. You get therapy, or you come to need it and can’t or don’t treat the problem. You take up a religion, or leave one behind. You change careers, maybe multiple times. You do something wonderful and the afterglow stays with you for a long time, or you do something terrible and the guilt clings to you just as tightly. You fall in love, fall out of love, gain a friend, lose a friend, make an enemy, make peace; you witness births and you witness deaths. These and many others like them, big and small, assemble us piece by piece. Everyone is a work in progress.

What I take from this is the folly of making assumptions about people based on out-of-date information - the folly of holding grudges. There are just too many variables. People’s lives and attitudes and desires can change so much, so quickly, and even most who know them won’t realize it. As with many other things I write about, this is a lesson I would have done well to learn long ago and should seek to learn much better now. I certainly wouldn’t want others to form their opinions of me on the basis of an exchange from five or ten or twenty years ago - even an image formed a year or two ago might well be wildly inaccurate today - and I shouldn’t form my opinions of others that way either.

If I renounce sizing up others that way, then the next step must be wiping the slate clean of all those outdated resentments and grievances. If the John Doe of ten years ago rubbed me wrong, it doesn’t mean the John Doe of today would. I may not choose to spend any time to find out what he’s up to now, and there’s no law that I have to like everyone or that everyone has to like me, but at least I can learn to free myself from continuing to resent him.

I’ve made this mistake countless times. I don’t want to make it anymore, though I’m sure I will. So I’ll start my effort right now: I hold nothing against anyone.

4 comments:

  1. "Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die." --Carrie Fisher

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  2. Nice! Yeah, that's about right.

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  3. This reminds me of Walt Whitman.

    https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=2029088328240

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  4. I like that a lot - thanks for sharing it. Gorgeous poem, for one, and it does capture how we are changed by the paths we go down and what we encounter there.

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