About ten or fifteen years ago I had a sudden moment of enlightenment. Sitting in the staff room I was listening to someone giving a blow by blow account of all the terrible things which his (or possibly her) colleagues had done to him (or her.) As well as recounting what they had actually done and said I was given detailed information on what they had thought while they did it and what their motivations had been. It struck me that since I am seldom if ever fully aware of all that I am thinking and feeling at any given moment it is a literal impossibility to pretend to such knowledge about another person. Still less to feel absolutely certain that such a speculation on our part must be completely accurate.
Over the next few weeks I paid closer attention than usual to what was being said around me. The most popular topic of staff room conversation was the merits or otherwise of the staff members not currently present. And a substantial percentage of this was devoted to discussing the (essentially unknowable) thoughts, feelings and motivations of these people. All of which confirmed my initial flash of insight which can be summarised as ‘time spent wondering what other people are thinking is time wasted.’
One of the net effects of this form of speculation is that instead of moving through the world surrounded by real people we inhabit a realm where those around us are to a certain extent the creation of our imagination. We interact, that is, in real ways with imaginary people who are also real people but not in the way which we imagine them to be. This is a good basis for making bad decisions about them but a bad basis for making good decisions.
Worse than that, in some ways, the only foundation we have for imagining what goes on inside another persons mind is to look inside our own one. And if we draw out from the stuff of ourselves images of malice, envy, avarice, anger, cruelty and so on it is our own maliciousness that we take as the clay of the model which we make. However fresh faced and innocent we may be when we start doing this if we spend years and decades brooding over our own viciousness then over the course of time we are likely to become the things about which we most think on.
It is not necessary, even if it were possible, for us to know what others think and feel deep down inside themselves. We can take them as we find them. Experience can tell us how much trust we should place in them or what we can expect from them in terms of words and actions. And that is all we need to know about most of the people we encounter (its more complicated with family members of course.) Attributing to them motives they may not possess or thoughts which they may never have had helps us not at all even if by some fluke we happen to be right. Our responsibility to be kind and just to each person we encounter is not altered by what what we imagine about that person.
The practice of pretending we know the minds of other people is even extended to those who are total strangers to us. For example if a politician we dislike rushes to the scene of a tragedy and is filmed emoting with victims we might call them ghoulish ambulance chasers seeking good publicity out of the sufferings of others. If they don’t do so we might call them callous and uncaring. In the United Kingdom there are people of a certain age who having condemned a previous Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for following the first option now equally vehemently condemn another, Theresa May (it seems to be a woman thing apparently) for following the second. And of course we have no way of knowing what either PM felt deep within their hearts.
To serially condemn Prime Ministers in this fashion for both doing or not doing the same thing seems to imply a lack of self-awareness on the part of the condemners. And, I think, self-awareness is the key missing factor in all the actions I have mentioned so far. Until we look deeply into ourselves and understand what we think, how we feel and what motivates us then we have no right to analyse others. When Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living he did not mean us to examine other peoples lives but to do so for our own. I would suggest that if and when we do understand ourselves better than we do now then we shall as a result be kinder and gentler with those around us. Or, as Jesus put it, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Luke 6:41)
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The picture is Envy by Giotto