Insides and Outsides

I’ve written before about the perilous gulf between perception and reality, and about the dangerous assumptions people make about others (okay, fine, me) based on outsides.

Outsides and insides are not the same.

When I was much younger, and struggling in a difficult period, someone very dear to me expressed frustration and disbelief.  How I could possibly be blue when everything seems to be going so well, he asked.  I have never forgotten that conversation.  It felt like he was challenging the authenticity of my emotions, and my initial reaction was anger.  I know now that his intentions were good.  But I had and since then have seen so many people who seem to have “perfect” lives struggling that I knew the disbelief was unfounded.  Even all those years ago I knew that how things looked was no reflection on how they felt.  My life, while far from perfect, was back then indeed on a smooth highway.  It still is.  I often describe my life – at 30, or 35, or, now, 40 – as exactly as I planned it and nothing like I expected.

This whole things-aren’t-always-as-they-seem works both ways.  Some people who seem to have “everything” aren’t actually that happy.  I also know that some of the most genuinely joyful and contented people I know are the ones whose lives may not look perfect and glossy on the surface.  I don’t know that it’s an inverse correlation, but it’s at least a random scatter.

This train of thought seems related, to me, to what I wrote about on Monday, to my reflection on David Brooks’ marvelous essay about shifting from emphasizing “resume virtues” to “eulogy virtues” in his own life.  This shift is similar to – maybe parallel to – a movement from relying on external indicators to the recognition that what matters is not visible on the outside.  Even as I write that I cringe a little: it sounds simplistic.  But I do think there’s something there.  And most of all, I just want to exhort everyone to stop making assumptions based on what they can see.  First of all, we can’t see the whole picture, ever.  What we see of other people is like the tiniest tip of the iceberg, and the lion’s share of their experience, of their entire person, is beneath the water, out of sight.

I need to remember this too.

Just as I started thinking and writing this post, I read these words of Anne Lamott’s on this very topic on my friend Rudri’s beautiful site.

10 thoughts on “Insides and Outsides”

  1. Yup, all true. My rabbi’s wife often reminds me that we meet people in chapter 3. We don’t know what came before and we can’t predict (not with certainty at least) what comes next.

  2. Yes to all of this–the tip of the iceberg, indeed (the Chapter 3 example Nina mentions in her comment is brilliant too). I wish more people would remember this. I think it would allow us all to move through the world with more empathy and compassion.

  3. I think social media magnifies the perfect, happy lives – the outside – and many of us make the grave error of comparing them to our insides, as Anne Lamott says so beautifully. My friends probably see that glossy sheen of my life, too, but these days I walk around with this heaviness, or perhaps a little emptiness, that even I can’t explain. Or maybe I can. I’ve been in a new city for a year now, and it’s perhaps the authentic friendships that I miss most from my past that’s carved this void inside, but I’m pretty sure no one can tell just by looking at me.

  4. Sometimes I think the strongest force, stronger even than the curation and editing people do on social media and in person, is our ability to narrate, in what we believe to be a completely accurate way, the lives of other people.

    Not a one of us knows, so it really does go to the simplest, but hardest to grasp truth, we can only hope and endeavor to find abundance in the moments we are given.

    Thank you for so often serving up the crimson leaf, fluttering and bobbing in the wind, that gives me pause to consider the beauty around me in each moment. xo

  5. this is one of the important lessons I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older – and I agree fervently that social media makes this difficult (and it’s kind of why I eschew Instagram – despite what may be going on inside, I feel most people are trying too hard to create that gloss and it makes me at the same time uncomfortable and insecure). But I just adore what Nina said about Chapter 3! And I also agree with what you wrote in your last post that I tend to be drawn to people who have scuffs under the sheen, probably because I am most definitely one with scuffs.

  6. Yes! I constantly remind myself that what I tell my child about others’ comments/judgements about him being more revealing about them than him is just as true when I am the one making judgements/assumptions.

  7. So much of your piece resonates with me, Lindsey. There is a backstory for every one of us and although it isn’t always visible, it shapes who we are, our words, actions and perceptions. Your words remind me of one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s four agreements: “Do not make assumptions.” Speculation is a dangerous thing especially when it comes to making conclusions about people.

    Thanks for linking me. I am honored. xo

  8. I always remember one English seminar I took while I was at Stanford. We were discussing Rebecca Harding Davis’s travails, and one of my more militant classmates flatly stated, “Look, she was white, and she had money. I don’t want to hear about her problems.” (You probably won’t be surprised to learn that my militant classmate was also a wealthy white woman).

    I find this lack of compassion appalling. The thinking seems to be that we need to compete on our miseries, and that ultimately, we must all defer to a starving genocide victim somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t believe that compassion is a zero-sum game.

    Having problems, even first-world problems, is emotionally draining. Having difficult choices, even if all the options are enviable, is still difficult.

  9. In one of Rob Lowe’s memoirs he cautioned to never compare your insides to another’s outsides. I find myself returning to that line when I go down the rabbit hole of comparison. There is so much we do not and cannot know about others no matter the proximity of our relationships.

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