The other day I was talking to someone about a recent article in my Lives series. She is a person I know pretty well in a business context, yet she expressed surprise – in a somewhat backhanded but complimentary way – that I had the sensitivity to portray the real feelings of the people in the article.
“You come across so aggressive and hard-nosed in the energy world. It’s refreshing to see the empathy you show in your writing.”
Literally the same day – I am not making any of this up – another person, also discussing an article in that series, said “This is really fiction, right? I mean, how does one person know so many interesting people? Not just interesting, but different. They can’t all be real people. You must be making them up.”
He was not really intending to be insulting, just pragmatic. He really didn’t understand how one person can end up meeting a broadly diverse group of people with interesting stories.
My initial response to him was defensive. Of course the people are real. The only “fiction” is changes to some of the facts to prevent the people from being identified. Their fundamental stories are not changed.
The real response to both of them, though, is more basic than that.
People are interesting.
To the first person, shocked that I might actually have empathy, I said “Look around this room [a hearing room full of 50 people]. We both know these people. For most of them, though, we know little about them except the narrow persona they show in this room.
“In virtually every case, their lives are more complicated and subtle than that. Everyone has a backstory. That backstory is usually interesting.”
The truth is that we see people as caricatures – “weird”, “bully”, “nice”, “smart”, etc. – but rarely get beyond that and see them as real people. In doing so, we miss a lot.
What we do is put people in boxes. This middle-aged man is a little short, and a little aggressive. Let’s label him as Napoleonic. This woman is very good-looking, and works in a bar. Sounds like a typical “cocktail waitress” type, probably not very smart. This young man sells marijuana to his friends for a living. He must be lazy, and maybe a bit of a gang-banger. This guy has muscles on his muscles, so he must be a dumb jock.
These are all shortcuts, and they are rarely the real truth.
When I started to write this article, I looked at the list of “Lives” articles I want to write in the future: dozens of individuals on my “to write list”, a very diverse group. Every single one of them is a person who is more complex, more nuanced, more interesting than anyone around them thinks.
Some of them are people I know well, so I know the real truth about their lives.
Some of them, on the other hand, are casual acquaintances. I only suspect their truths are more than first appear, but I don’t actually know yet. It is just intuitive on my part, which then makes me want to know more. I want to see behind the caricature.
One day I will write a story about Mac, a middle manager at a utility. He has spent his whole life depressed, from as far back as he remembers. As a kid, even. His relationships with his ex-wife, and with his kids, are essentially non-existent. He lives alone. No-one wants to be his friend.
And yet Mac has a hobby at which he is one of the best in the world.
No-one around him knows this.
In the rarified world of his hobby, his name is one everyone knows. They talk about him, sometimes in awe. To those outside that world, he is nothing. Within that world, Mac is a star.
He is still depressed. Despite his success within his hobby world, and his solid, respectable job, he has no life.
At some point I’m going to write the story of a good friend of mine, Barry, who for many years ran a successful business on behalf of its absentee owners. The business is completely mundane, one of those jobs that “someone has to do”, but interesting to no-one outside of his industry. The job, however, was still important, and Barry did it well. Everyone respected him.
Barry’s life has been focused on his career in some respects, but deep down he never really gave a shit. Barry was the cool kid in high school, and he married the cool girl. They have built a good life, but about what?
What Barry always cared about – aside from the cool girl by his side for the last 40 years – is rock music, and fast cars. Most of the people who knew Barry over the last few decades would not have associated him with a drum set, or with a GTO. They missed the central parts of his personality, the things he cared about. Barry and his “cool girl” are in fact still all about the same things as in 1973. They are still those same cool kids. Just older.
Also on my “Lives” list is a woman I first met when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company that briefly employed my legal services.
Marilyn has been in the same job for twenty years. Everyone sees her as a cog in the machine, who trudges through her workday, then goes home to her husband and two teenagers, and is entirely unremarkable. She is Eleanor Rigby with a family.
Then her office-mates saw her raise money in the office for a charity by running a marathon, which raised some eyebrows, but they still don’t know the whole story, and they haven’t tried to find out.
If you dig deeper, you find her history: high school and university athletics at an elite level, cut short when she got pregnant and “had to get married”.
She and her husband made a happy life of it anyway, but the richness of her life, and the strength of personality that she offers to her kids, is often lost on the people around her. They simply don’t know.
One more: Alex. Alex is now almost 60. If he were a young person today, he would have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, relatively serious in severity, and would have been given support and treatment. When he was growing up, that wasn’t the norm, and he was expected to conform and find a way to live within society as a “weird person”.
Alex works for the federal government, where there is more tolerance for “weirdness” than would be the case at the average employer. They value him for his asocial but highly focused attention to the details of issues.
But I know two things about Alex that are not generally known.
First, when the federal government was about to implement a major policy change in the Middle East several years ago, it was Alex who insisted – in his very understated but stubborn, autistic way – that they were making a mistake. He was persistent, to the point of being extremely annoying.
He was right, and they eventually realized it. Had they proceeded unchecked, people would have died.
Second, when a colleague of his at work had to go through several rounds of chemotherapy, and ultimately died from cancer, it was Alex who was there every day for more than two years, helping, supporting, and empathizing. Alex, who had literally no social skills whatsoever (as everyone knew), was the person who cared enough to be there from start to finish.
These are all people we put in boxes, carefully labelled and “completely understood” by way of those labels. In one sense, we should be ashamed of ourselves. We put blinders on, and as a result we don’t see people as they really are.
And frankly, it’s worse than that. We don’t just put people in boxes. Then we “judge” them. We decide that Alex can’t have empathy, or indeed any feelings for other people. We decide that Marilyn is boring, because what we see of her life is so relentlessly normal. We make decisions about who should be our friends, and who is worthy of our respect, all based on these judgments, and the labels that generated them.
Should we be ashamed?
The answer is probably that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. We label people because each of us has only so much mindshare that we can invest in engaging with other people. We would like to engage more, and really understand the people around us. When we do, we really enjoy the emotional connections we can make.
But we have many human interactions, and each one requires an investment of our persona and our heart and our brain. We invest the most in family, and close friends. We would like to do the same with everyone else.
Of the hundred people you know right this minute, can you invest the same amount of your soul in all of them as you invest in trying to understand your spouse, or your children, or your best friend? Clearly not.
So we create shortcuts. We generalize people into boxes, and label those boxes in ways that, for the most part, allow us to deal with them without a huge personal investment.
In days past, people labelled using racial or ethnic or religious identifiers, but our society rightly made those shortcuts unacceptable. It was a simplified way to deal with the people around us. It was wrong.
That doesn’t change the problem, though. We still have to put people in boxes, because we simply can’t handle all of the complexities of all of the individual human beings around us. So, we have developed new and more “reasonable” boxes and labels.
Those new boxes and labels are still not the truth, of course, a fact we often forget.
Here’s an interesting twist, though. If you want to be a writer, you have to understand people at a “non-label” level. If you have characters that are just the generalizations that support the boxes, those characters are not believable, and your writing – no matter how well you put the words together – is not good enough. I learned that the hard way 45 years ago, when I had the technical skill, but I didn’t yet understand enough about the richness in peoples’ characters.
The “Lives” series started – or so I thought – as a bit of an exercise for me, stretching my writing muscles and seeing if I could do today what I couldn’t do so long ago. Have I learned enough about people over half a century to actually be a writer?
In truth, though, its real goal is more than that. The central point of the “Lives” series is to expose the real people behind the boxes and labels we use so often in our lives. All of us should be looking for those real people more than we do.
It is hard. We can’t really do it all the time.
We can, however, be sensitized to it.
Each time we see the bureaucrat – or lawyer, or customer service representative, or engineer, or plumber, or economist, or secretary – sitting across the table from us, it is worthwhile to pause just for a minute and remember that we don’t know their whole story.
Even if we will never be able to learn who they really are, just reminding ourselves that the boxes and labels are not really the truth is a step in the right direction.
– Jay Shepherd, July 4, 2017