Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mirrors, Windows, and the Monkeysphere

     Disclaimer: I realize that larger than average portions of this essay are quotes from books, but I have done this both to show the prevalence of this theme in literature and because I believe the quotes have added something to my thoughts that I could not articulate in a more effective way than the quotes themselves do. I recommend you read them, but you can probably understand the essay without them.

     One of my favorite authors, John Green, likes to say that his novel Paper Towns is about "the importance of imagining other people complexly". It takes a while to understand what that means when you're reading it, but there's a very elucidating passage that I think it's important I reproduce here. Context: Both of the narrator's parents are therapists.

"My dad finished chewing something and then put his fork down and looked at me. 'The longer I do my job,' he said, 'the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, and so hard for us to show anyone how we feel.'
'That is really lovely,' my mom said. I liked that they liked each other. 'But isn't it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.'
'True. Consciousness makes for poor windows, too. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it quite that way.'"

     So now, to the meat of the essay. I believe that we as people are very very comfortable with the idea that   we are ourselves people. I also believe that we are very very comfortable with the idea that we, being people, have hopes and dreams and aspirations and desires and secrets and fears and make mistakes. I think the problem we have, as people, is recognizing that other people are also people. We have a problem recognizing that other people are as three-dimensional, metaphorically speaking, as we are.
     I think this is a very dangerous thing. Imagine if someone idealized you to the point that they thought you were the exception to every rule, imagined that you were infallible. You could never truly connect to that person, no matter how much they truly "love"* you, because you could never live up to their expectations.  I like to call this The Daisy Buchanan Effect, after a very relevant passage in The Great Gatsby.
"As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart."
     Same with hate, of course. If you've decided that someone is a terrible person, there is no way for them to recover from that. At least, not with any level of ease. I'd point to Pride and Prejudice as an example. It takes a whole book for Mr. Darcy to get from "worst guy in the world" to "love of my life" in Elizabeth Bennett's mind; she could have saved herself all of that trouble if she'd been able to imagine him complexly, as John Green advises.  It's also my defense of moral relativism and one of the big reasons I'm comfortable writing essays like Hitler was a Good Guy. I'm very uncomfortable saying that someone is a "bad person", no matter what they've done, because they have their reasons and dreams and hopes and fears. These may be misguided or may disagree with my views, of course, but, if you try to imagine someone complexly, you will at least be reluctant to dismiss them as a demon, as it were.
     On the other hand, there are some counterarguments. Hank Green, the brother of author John Green, suggests in this video that if you cared about everyone in the world equally, you would lose all ability to function and to help even some of the people. Also, this very interesting article from, though it acknowledges that society would be much better if everyone could imagine everyone complexly, suggests that decisions at some point require you to choose one person over another, and also suggests that we might have a biological limit of how many people we can imagine complexly, which they call the Monkeysphere (that limit being about 150 people for humans).
     I do recommend, however, that you try to empathize with people more on a deeper level before deciding that they are one thing or another. Strive to understand them as much as you understand yourself. Admittedly, you may not understand yourself very well, since you're made up of many complex and conflicting thoughts and emotions, but that's kind of the point. So, really, maybe the goal should be less to understand them as much as you understand yourself and more to understand them as little as you understand yourself. I think I'm rambling at this point.
     Homework assignment: Next time you're stuck in traffic, look around and realize that every car around you is driven by someone who is as complex as you are, at least. Try to imagine the fact that each of those people has had as rich a life as you have, as rich a personality as you have, as strong hopes and dreams and fears and secrets as you have. It's mind-blowing, and will likely change how you look at and treat the people around you.

Consciousness makes for poor windows, but a person has to try.

*The quotation marks are to emphasize the question of whether someone can really love someone else when they don't see or understand that person, just the idealized version of that person that they've placed on a pedestal. That's a big question that both Paper Towns and The Great Gatsby address. A visual novel I play/read called Katawa Shoujo also addresses the question of whether you can love and connect to someone without truly understanding them. What do you guys think?

I think I'm done.

- Adarsh Nednur

Imagine us authors here at QBA complexly and realize that we'd love it if you'd like QBA on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

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