Other People

Each of us begins by seeing himself as the star of a privately viewed movie – and we really root for the main character. Our Hero bestrides the world like a colossus; indeed, it is too much so: one of his weaknesses is that all too often he misses the importance of the bit players. After all, they are the stars in different movies, of which he can see only small snippets.

Some young people see themselves as being in romantic comedies, waiting for the perfect partner to reveal him or herself. The problem with that genre, though, is that its movies invariably end with a marriage, which for most of us is when life’s important tradeoffs really start – so to me, seeing life through the lens of a romcom is kinda like stopping a sports movie at the beginning of the marathon – sure, the training has been done, but you’re a long way from seeing how Our Hero deals with the hard parts. And even if the mythical perfect partner is found, the hard parts are still going to be hard.

Our personal movies go on and on, until they don’t – and we instinctively hope for a happier eventual conclusion than whatever is on offer at the moment. If we’re lucky, they are extended adventures, epics, or comedies, rather than tragedies – but of course, we can’t tell which genre they are – that can only be judged by others (the bit players!) when the movies are over.

One of the things that we learn as we grow older is that you are never the star in the other person’s movie – and you are only rarely the co-star or villain. Indeed, the other person is generally so focused on his or her part in life’s drama that he or she scarcely notices you. A teenager with acne is absolutely convinced that everybody is focused on his imperfect skin; as he grows older he realizes that others are far more worried about their own images than they are about him.

The realization of how unimportant we are to others unless we become involved with them in some significant way, is the beginning of having a broader perspective than that of my hypothetical, self-centered movie. The personal-narrative-as-private-movie perspective never wholly disappears – to some extent it is inherent in our circumstances – but over time we learn to balance that narrative with understandings of the narratives of others, without whose reflections our lives would mean much less.

Life is a profoundly communal experience: survival depends on meeting simple physical needs, but happiness depends on a broader context that only others can provide.

The observation that “Every man needs love and a job” is commonly attributed to Freud; it is a succinct summation of our emotional needs. People need affirmation of their inherent value (love) – and to be needed by others (a job); both of these needs are communal. Solitary confinement is the most terrible of punishments precisely because it denies these fundamental emotional needs.

Over time we learn that what’s important about our stories is not what we consume, but how we interact with others. Helping people gives us joy because we know that we know that other lives are improved thereby and that by doing so we will have engendered affirmations of our capabilities, values and place under the sun.

The ways to help people are numberless, but most begin with treating them with respect, and, above all, listening to them. This sounds easy, but often isn’t. Cultures and individuals differ widely in terms of manners and expectations, and people will generally only be open about their fears and hopes with those who have shown them respect in ways that are familiar to them. They want to be dealt with on their own terms – indeed, to a considerable extent if you don’t do so, they can’t hear you, and won’t let you hear them. After all, they are the leads in their own movies.

One of the greatest blessings of the northeastern corner of our country, and particularly New York City, is its spectacular ethnic, religious, cultural and economic diversity. (I can only wish the northeast were more politically diverse). It sometimes seems like everybody is here, living and working cheek by jowl. You can’t possibly thrive in New York City without learning to deal with people in subtly different ways based on their cultures’ behavioral expectations, rather than your own.

(Insert joke here about how in addition to all of that amazing cultural, etc. diversity, there are an awful lot of women in the northeast, and just try understanding them).

Kidding aside, the similarities in our physical and emotional needs are vastly greater than the differences, however differently they may rise to the surface. If we are lucky, and work at it, our lives are immeasurably enriched by the ways that they become interwoven with the lives of others who, at first, we may have barely noticed.

And relationships with others will help Our Hero get through the hard parts.



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