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.