The first big revelation I ever had in my life was that other people are like me. When I was little, of course, I thought in terms of two spheres, inside me and outside me. Everyone outside me was a part of my life, a character in my story. I didn't really think of their internal states much, except insofar as they affected me.
Gradually I started realizing that they saw themselves just as I saw myself -- that their feelings were as intense, their interests as important, their troubles as devastating as mine were to me. And to them, I was simply a character in their drama -- they weren't obsessing over me either positively or negatively, because most of the time they weren't thinking about me at all. It follows that, just as their interior experience was equal to mine, their importance was equal to mine. I shouldn't be too quick to make myself the center of things or lay claim to things I want, because other people's desire for these things is as strong as mine and their claim just as valid.
In short, I learned that other people are just like me -- that, just as Mr. Rogers always used to say, we may look different on the outside, but inside we're all the same. I suppose every person has to have this revelation as a part of growing up, or remain selfish and emotionally immature.
But this past year or two, I've been having another revelation, slowly becoming more explicit as I see more and more proof of it: other people are, in fact, not so much like me at all.
Oh, I was right in thinking that other people have feelings the way I do, of course. But in empathizing, trying to put myself in other people's shoes, I've had a habit of projecting a little too much. I imagine what I would do in their situation, but they go and do something entirely different from what I would have done. They reveal thoughts that I would never have thought, or have feelings I would never have expected.
For instance, I tend to assume that other people tell the truth, because I never lie. Most of us never lie, not substantially. But some people lie all the time, and it always throws me when I discover it. Urban legends have to be made up by somebody, and the reason they spread is because people who hear them assume that no one would just lie. But some people do. There are people who aren't shy, or who don't care who people think of them. I can't imagine what it would be like to be one of those people.
I'm not talking about differing opinions, so much. It's unsurprising to find that people are wrong about things; I've been wrong about lots of things. I tend to assume that more information and argument will change either my mind or theirs. And yet, that often doesn't happen, because other people don't always disagree with me for rational reasons. Sometimes, they just want different things to begin with. I can talk them back to, "But if we did this, we'd have no liberty!" and their answer is, "So?" It's one of those core values you can't argue about because they're part of someone's nature, what they're drawn to, what they are and aren't repelled by.
And the differences only get greater when I move outside my immediate social networks, when I talk to people from a different region, class, political persuasion, or nation. I'm constantly being startled to find that, for instance, my brother-in-law thinks being brainy is a bad thing; or that liberals think Hillary Clinton is far too apt to compromise with Republicans; or that Italians think Americans are weird for standing in line. Things I take for granted, things I think are obviously true, turn out to be simply a part of my culture, and I didn't know it because my friends have the same assumptions I have.
The Trump phenomenon drives this home more than anything. I can't wrap my head around why a person would listen to ten minutes of Trumpian verbal diarrhea and think, "Huh, that sounds like someone I'd like running the country." What would that feel like? What thoughts are going through that person's head? And why don't they feel all the feelings I feel? I'm incapable of putting myself in that person's shoes, because you can psychoanalyze all day long and explain to me their motivations, and I still won't understand because I'm not that sort of person.
I read a lot of books and I imagine that I'm really inside the head of the characters, that I'm getting a peek at what it's like to be someone else. But in reality, I can never know. There's so much a person thinks and feels in just a single day, life experiences that have marked them, ideas they have, things I know that they don't and things they know that I don't. Their actions seem obvious, instinctive to them, even when I shut the book and say, "No one would really act like that."
They say that our visual experience of color is so ineffable that it is impossible to say if we all see the same color when we look at something red. I've always been of the opinion that human brains are similar enough that we're probably all seeing something we'd agree is red. But more and more it's occurring to me that it might not be that simple. There is huge variation in how people think and feel, and I'm never going to understand what it's like to be even one other person, let alone all the other people.
I guess it's one of those lifelong lessons, finding out what parts of my experience are common human things and which are specific to myself. It would be a much shorter job if I could do what I've always dreamed of doing, and hop behind someone else's eyes for five minutes. What would I see?