In his first chapter of What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the “curiosity about the interior life of other people... is one of the most fundamental of human impulses." I‘ve always thought of that idea as inherently self-serving, but true. We want to know of other people's deepest mistakes so that we do not make them, we want to know of their greatest loves because it gives us something to mold our affections toward. We want to know how it feels like to be lonely and desperate, but also to be glamorized and wanted instead of constantly full of wanting. But simpler than that, it's easy to get lost in wondering what even the closest people to us are thinking about. How they perceive the world, and us, within it.
There is this fascinating concept in developmental psychology called the theory of mind. At some point in a child's life, there is a crucial change in the way they see the world. Prior to this point, they think every ache, joy, desire they experience is felt by everyone in the world. But once children grow to a certain age, they realize that the world is perceived differently by each individual, in different colors, shapes, and meanings. That their concept of the world is independent of another's. They build a capacity for understanding that not all mental states are the same. Intellectual perspective-taking. An understanding that context is needed.
Glück: In the absence of context, fragments, no matter how independently beautiful, grow rapidly tedious. This year, I wrote in my journal, I am trying hard to love more contextually rather than fragmentarily. What does that mean? It means that I am starting to realize that understanding someone does not entail standing unbearably close. Sometimes, what you need is to see the people you love from a distance. From a different year, under different emotions, across different stages in life. To ask where they came from, where they stand, how they will move forward. The answer isn't the microscope, or the bird's eye view. It is both.
The Christmas lights are slowly flickering to life with each drive, winding spires of blue and white. They make me feel like there is time to repair the cracks and step forward, to bridge the gaps, to begin in open air. The other week I read Stoner by John Williams, where the main character realizes that his entire life he had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire.
The older I get, the less I believe that love is represented most fully by the intensity of affection, and the more I'm convinced contextual empathy is the basis of it all. But, that empathy depends on the creation of integrity. An honesty about appearing before someone and saying I do not know enough, but I will try to understand.