And what do we really know about one another?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this recent piece by New York Times writer Frank Bruni, about losing some of his sight, moving:

And that truth helped me reframe the silly question “Why me?” into the smarter “Why not me?” It was a guard against anger, an antidote to self-pity, so much of which hinges on the conviction, usually a delusion, that you’re grinding out your days while the people around you glide through theirs, that you’ve landed in the bramble to their clover. To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.

Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.

“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.” A woman I know would be wearing that, and her acquaintances would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.

In a world that glamorizes money and power and objects, it’s easy to assume someone with more of these than you is gliding through life. Not true, not true at all.

One of the wealthiest people I know manages multiple chronic illnesses, runs her own business, raises two teenagers and faced cancer when I did, which is how we met. (We’re both fine!)

Only through true intimacy can we finally find out what others are facing, or have survived and somehow kept on going — terrible accidents, unemployment, being a refugee (even surviving torture and imprisonment), losing a child, or several.

While Americans often tell total strangers a lot about themselves — which more reticent cultures find weird and uncomfortable — it can take years for some people to share their darkest moments with us. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe it’s fear we’ll reject them or dismiss their trauma. Or, worst of all, try to best it.

One of my closest friends, after a truly terrible multi-year wait of endless surgeries and medical and legal appointments, finally won a major lawsuit against the company whose negligence damaged her body and altered her life for good.

I despaired of her getting what she so badly deserved, but she did. No one would know this to see her, smiling and well-groomed and well-dressed and calm.

But she somehow soldiered on.

Many of us do.

22 thoughts on “And what do we really know about one another?

  1. I read that earlier. I get Bruni’s newsletter. There’s wisdom and goodness about him, and I sometimes wonder, as I do in the case of Liz Cheney, whether in some part that comes from having had to navigate a world that’s hostile to one’s sexuality.

  2. Jan Jasper

    What a great post and an important topic. Yes, I do think we should all realize that others have struggled in ways we aren’t aware of. Yet, as I get older, I increasingly doubt how many people would feel compassion even if they KNEW what others had been through. There’s a disturbing thread in many people’s thinking (as least in the mostly-privileged US) that if a person has bad luck, it’s their own fault. I now know there’s a term for it – toxic positivity. It’s a big reason I avoid facebook – so many people there say idiotic things like “Your thoughts have created your reality” or “Maybe your negative attitude caused your cancer.” That kind of thinking is intellectually bankrupt and shows a staggering lack of compassion. In psychology there’s a name for this – “The just world fallacy.” Many people don’t get how much of life is random. They don’t want to get it because it’s effing scary. Bad things happen for no reason. I have a neighbor who survived cancer and he had the audacity to say “Somebody up there is looking out for me.” I was too speechless to say to him, “Others who are just as religious as you are in agony or have died from cancer. Do you really think God thinks you’re special?” I think when people hear of another’s suffering, they are often uncomfortable and will find ways to deny the validity of the person’s feelings. We know about the harmful effects on many peoples’ compassion caused by social media. But there have always been insensitive people. When my younger brother died over 40 years ago, various people ran out of patience at my grief – after only about a month. I can’t tell if it’s a lack of compassion, or perhaps they were sensitive to my grief and so tried to find ways to blunt it. It’s hard to tell. But either way, it’s hurtful. Sometime the only kind thing to say is “That sucks, I”m sorry.” That would be much better than saying “He’s in a better place now.” We don’t know that, and it’s offensive to say it just because your friend’s grief makes YOU uncomfortable. I apologize if I’ve ranted on a tangential topic, but I think it’s related.

  3. i so agree with this, caitlin. i think that people sometimes dismiss what happens to others, don’t really want to know, or never consider that things may have even happened that are not pleasant. it makes them uncomfortable to know, perhaps they worry that it could happen to them, or don’t want to dig too deep into someone’s human experience, just assuming they had it easy when they had a harder time of things.

      1. I think part of the problem is that the average American knows too many people at a very superficial level, and that makes it hard to empathize. Close friends, it’s different.

        It’s also probably easier when people are arranged in groups, such as religious groups. I had a facebook friend who I’d never met, but her father and my brother had been friends since they were 9 or 10. But I was very impressed with her from knowing her on fb–a truly decent and caring soul. (She and her husband adopted four siblings from Central America, and as a Mormon, she was very upset with the church when it basically disowned the children of gay couples, and I first encountered her when she was agonizing over that.)

        Anyway, she and her husband were recently killed in a car crash in Hawaii (they were both 44, the kids ranging from 10-15, I think). I did not go to Utah for the memorial, but I watched it online. It was impressive how the (small) community pulled together for this family (the husband’s brother and his wife took the kids).

  4. Robert Lerose

    Does the central theme of “what do we really know about each other” apply to everyone? Should we ask ourselves that question even about, say, people whose political views we despise?

  5. Jan Jasper

    A major part of the American psyche is taking credit for our success even when it resulted largely from luck, and blaming others for their misfortunes. It’s part of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality. In psychology it’s called a fundamental attributional bias

  6. Susan Dunphy

    Thank you for this column. Often, we know so little about each other and we judge so quickly. If there’s anything I know for sure, no one “has it all.”

  7. Thanks Caitlin. I felt like I’d been shot–emotionally–when I first read about that crash on her sister’s fb page. The memorial was definitely comforting.

    One thing I want to do, after reading Bruni, and then reading your original post is to try to remain aware of the fact that there may be a ton of stuff anyone I encounter is going through, so that I can factor that possibility into interactions.

    I used to have a best friend (one of several), a guy a decade older, who could hear it in my voice whenever I was the least bit upset about anything. And if he heard it in my voice, he would say in this gentle tone, “What’s the matter David?” And he was very good at then listening.

    FWIW, this guy was a conservative. I’m not sure how he got that way, but I think he married into conservatism. He’d been Martin Luther King’s photographer. He was not interested in prostelytizing his views in the least. Alas, he’s been gone for 7 years. He was one of the nicest H. sapiens on the planet.

  8. Kris Lindquist

    Thank you. This column is superb and an excellent reminder that we don’t (usually) know the burdens others are carrying.

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