It took me until my early thirties properly to be exposed to a really simple idea: everyone around you, indeed, everyone all over the world, has a story that brought them to today, to this minute, this second, that is as rich and internally consistent as yours.
It’s so easy to think “Oh, Derek is an asshole,” or “Jill is going to kick up such a shitstorm about this” or even just to think that the part of someone you see every day in the office or down the pub or on the pitch is the whole and total of who they are. But inside their head, there is a whole multi-faceted narrative that lead them to now, and everything they do makes sense to them – just like how everything you do makes sense to you, or at least, can be rationalised or explained or at worst excused away. See also Hannah Gadsby’s wonderful recent polemic on how good men continue to redraw the line to put the bad men on the other side, or the much more academic, though still highly readable Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).
This is an important lesson to internalise (and god knows I forget it so often) because it engenders empathy. Derek is not an asshole, he’s living and dealing with, oh, any number of things that are making him do assholish things. Things he might not even realise are things. Emotional literacy and self-reflection are hard.
But it took me to my late thirties to realise something else. As well as it being incumbent on me to afford others some leeway and empathy as I interact with them, recognising that their stories are more lavish and nuanced inside their heads than is apparent outside, I think we should also allow that richness to spill out of ourselves! Despite Brexit, despite Trump, despite the repugnant attacks that accompany historically marginalised groups reasserting their control over their identities and their destinies, I’m currently – today – feeling hopeful. Because around me, in the friends I have in cyber- and meatspace, and the media I chose to be exposed to, I see people much more willing to be emotionally vulnerable and honest. To allow people, in other words, to read that story inside each of us, and not to be afraid to show the world that we’re not the 2D cardboard cut-out people we usually feel we have to present as.
Much is made of social media’s tendency to let us – to tacitly encourage us – to present the best version of ourselves, and this is increasingly being called out for being unhealthy. And for sure, it basically is, although even there there is nuance; selfies, derided as vain and vacuous, can be a way of empowering people whose image was traditionally mediated through prescriptive gatekeepers, for example, and I’ve certainly shared posts on Instagram which look like the worst kind of Instagramminess, but which record and mark little personal triumphs of happiness for me.
But in my world, I’m seeing people using social media to articulate and own their issues, their problems and their insecurities – their stories. They’re prepared to show the workings-out of how you become a good and kind and whole person, rather than persisting in the fiction that they’re already complete, autonomous adults. And that’s marvellous, I think; I have become closer to friends who have embraced their chaos and their fuckups, and I believe people have been drawn closer to me when I’ve purposefully dismantled the façade I so carefully built from my teens on.
We are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimp, and telling the story of ourselves to those around us will help them understand and love us more completely. And if we listen carefully to that story as we tell it, we might just love ourselves more completely too.