To say that we live in a world with others would certainly sound trivial: ofcourse we do. We live in a world filled with people — our friends and family, with our co-workers and acquaintances, with our pets, and even with strangers.
But if living with others is something that is so normal, why is it soproblematic?
We know that our relationships with other people give meaning to existence. We love others. We want to be loved.
But with this wondrous thing comes also the risk of pain. We put a lot on the line, not only when it comes to love and friendship with others, but in our day-to-day actions. Trust, sympathy, and conversation all involve other people, and so, too, involve us in complications.
We have a tendency to make assumptions about others, open ourselves to judgment and chance being hurt, ridiculed or rejected. Relationships, in any form, can indeed be the cause for both exhilarating joy and crippling misery.
And yet the answer to these issues may be as simple as it is initially uncomfortable. We have to learn how to build connections in a healthy way.
The First Men on Earth
Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and writers of fiction have grappled with the question of ‘the other’ throughout time. The most enduring films and books take us into this adventure, for an adventure it often is.
In an exploration of the trials and tribulations that our relationships often present us with, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau takes on this very question.
In one of his Discourses, he imagines what it must have been like when one man first encountered another.
At first, he would surely have been quite startled, and instantly become aware that the other man has noticed him as well. He would quickly begin to form judgments about his, sizing him up and assessing how much of a threat he may be. Doubting himself, he exclaims: “He’s a giant!” He seems bigger, better, stronger — than me.
This novel interaction would most likely have been marred by fear and overestimation at one’s own expense. But what can this example teach us about our real and present interactions? A great deal, actually.
It depicts the instantaneity of the assumptions one makes; our haste to make judgments and assessments. Why do we instantly begin to think that other people are bigger, better, stronger — or even, perhaps, worse than we are?
Such assumptions would have to have arisen from comparisons, between ourselves and others, but these hurried self-assessments, made in the spontaneity of this regard, are bound to be insufficient.
The other in such a situation would appear as nothing other than magnified. But, of course, he often turns out to be the exact same size as we are.
Thus, it becomes a question of the accuracy of one’s own self-evaluation, and a lot will depend on what dispositions and inclinations we might carry, about which we are likely to have an incomplete understanding.
We are faced with the deep mystery of our own being. As a result, we make rash assumptions about ourselves and others. As Simone de Beauvoir puts it,
When one encounters an other, “indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.”
Insofar as we are thrown into confusion, we are likely to look for a remedy.
Maybe if I bulk up, I might think, then I can be as big as the Giant. Or maybe if I get a better job, I can buy a house as big as the one that the Joneses have down the street.
Whether it is a matter of physical appearance, monetary power, impressive friends or intellectual pursuits, one seeks to attain a certain standard, as if that will bring happiness — or at least an equivalence.
All this, however, is premised upon the assumption that the self-conceptions we have are actually accurate. But so far as we have understood ourselves in relation to others, in an incomplete way, we are likely to overestimate how much we would have to produce in order to be equal.
We wrongly assume that others are better than us, strive to create excessive changes, and ultimately wind up failing and disappointing ourselves.
We can see, then, how centrally our understanding of our own selves dictates the quality of our interactions with others.
If we are to have reasonable relations with others, we must start by building a fair conception of ourselves.
We must free ourselves of our imagined defects, which we hasten to remedy with needless desperation. We feel unhappy when we see ourselves this way and only impact our relationships negatively as a result.
We must dare to see ourselves in a positive light, surrendering our tendencies to compare us to those we meet and instead learning to feel happy with who we are. After all, it is these comparisons that stand to cause us great misery.
If loving oneself requires a certain openness, and if favourable relations with others require an openness to the discovery of who they are, then similarly the arrival of happiness has to be regarded as a pleasant surprise.
The many issues and complications that arise as a result of our interactions with others can, perhaps, be resolved by simply being — as we already are; not comparing ourselves with those we meet, but approaching conversation with a relaxed sense of openness and humility.
We are all flawed in some way, and no one person is better than any other. It doesn’t make sense to distance ourselves with comparisons. Instead, let’s allow our imperfections and differences to bring us closer.