on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

meeting people (and our selves) where they are

One of the hardest things to do in life is to meet people where they are. As I was typing this, I realised the concept of being at a place may be a little abstract for some people. What is this where we are talking about? We often tell people, “I am not at a place where I can do this”. Where does this place exist?

I guess I will loosely define this as a metaphorical location in our psyche that maps to a composite of who we are as a person, our circumstances and psychological state at that point in time. We are never the same person at any given moment, but somehow we believe we are. The same obviously goes for other people, and so our interactions with them should be highly dynamic, yet we are surprised when the outcomes are different even though we may be doing the exact same thing. One of the clearer examples may be a couple in a long-term marriage where one spouse behaves exactly the same way after ten years, but gets totally shell-shocked when that same behaviour triggers a divorce. Or think of a moment in life when you felt like doing something only to not feel so in the next moment. We think of this as being flaky, but as highly dynamic creatures why are we so surprised when our psychological states are dynamic as well?

Who we are as a person is shaped by so many complex inter-playing factors. Our family, our environments, our societies and their resulting culture, the global psyche, the circumstances that unfolded while we are developing, our peers, etc. But somehow the way we manage our interactions and expectations is as though everybody is the same. This is especially painful and apparent in most of our education systems. We treat every child as though they develop at the same pace, learn the same way, have the same interests (yeah let’s not pretend we care about their interests), are given the same learning opportunities, time and caregiving. The school has to be efficient in training hordes of people at the same time for future participation in the “economy”. We test their abilities the same way, respond to their successes and failures the same way, condemn them to future restrictive paths if they don’t do well in this restrictive system.

This world is an inherently traumatic place. I know for many people they reserve the word “trauma” for only serious events like murder and physical abuse, but isn’t it traumatic that the world insists on shaping us in boxes, and in order to survive we have to cut off what is different about us? How much of us do we have to kill and bury in order to be “normal”? 

Most people don’t realise they are chronically traumatised, because trauma only happens to unfortunate victims of extremely rare events. But we don’t see what is really happening when we lose our aliveness – the light in our eyes – when we chronically hurt other people including the people we love and our selves, when we cope with numbing and addiction which includes buying things we don’t need, going into unnecessary debt because we want signal we are worth something by being able to purchase that more expensive apartment. 

We don’t realise we have limited psychological capacity to deal with all of this, since we’re so used to it. Life is never fair, we tell ourselves, we don’t always get what we want. So we continue to push ourselves into these boxes, and continue to cut off pieces of ourselves and then repeatedly say: we have to be grateful. We are consciously fine or so we think, but our bodies and psyches know. There will be points when we can’t deal with all of this, so we start leaking our anger and distress to other people. We pat ourselves on the back for doing well in this system so we want our kids to do well in this system too. Some of us inevitably fall ill and/or have breakdowns. 

One of the less obvious outcomes of this system is narcissism. I don’t mean narcissism in the way it is portrayed in the media, like a narcissist has to be someone with an obviously grandiose ego and keeps praising themselves. Narcissism occurs when a person is unable to consider factors beyond their own feelings. A more subtle form of narcissism is when people think they have empathy because they have a lot of feelings about other people’s circumstances, but in reality they are projecting: they are experiencing the feelings of putting themselves in other people’s shoes, but true empathy is about trying to understand what it is like to be others, not them in the same shoes. I don’t mean this as a criticism or judgement, because we cannot blame fish for not climbing trees. 

This sort of pseudo empathy becomes damaging when people in positions of power make systemic changes believing they are doing good without actually considering what people actually need. Or when someone tries to help their friend using tools and advice that worked for them but may not work for their friend. The helper becomes distressed and potentially disappointed because the helpee is not responding or is perceived to not want to help themselves, when in reality the helpee is at a different place altogether and needs something else.

Think of us as computer systems. We are all installed with different software so we need some sort of translation protocol to interact with another person, but we blindly assume we are the same so we keep using our language on other people. Plenty of times we are installed with faulty software ourselves but we are not aware of it because how can we truly see the water we swim in? Then we try to impose this faulty software on other people because hey it “worked” for us. Grit worked for our ancestors so we try to make our kids the same kind of gritty without realising the landscape has totally changed. We make evaluations based on the boxes we are in despite the world being so much wider with so many different shapes in existence. This is harmful even if we don’t mean the harm, because we make policies and interact with our loved ones based on these evaluations, resulting in people having to kill and bury more of themselves in order to meet our expectations.

All of this applies to how we interact with our selves as well. Many people has this ultra-wide gap between understanding who we are, what we truly need – versus who we expect ourselves to be. There will be inevitable suffering if we aspire to be someone we admire when we never had the opportunities they had, or it is very possible what we truly want and need is a quiet stable life, but society keeps telling us we need to be someone. In this case we’re the ones who will keep pushing ourselves into these boxes, self-sacrificing the parts of us that stick out, and be perpetually disappointed with our selves because we are not meeting ourselves at where we are.

To know where we are, we have to first know who we are. But we’ve been stuck in our boxes for so long that we believe the boxes are who we are. So we have this misunderstanding that we know ourselves very well, when in truth it is the box that we know very well. Then we get confused when we get depressed or unhappy because we are who we’ve always wanted to be and have everything we can supposedly want, but why is there this deep uncomfortable feeling of being empty?

This sort of emptiness is not the same as the zen emptiness. It is a hollowness, as though something is missing. Of course something is missing: our actual selves.

I guess this is a very longwinded way of explaining that it is very difficult to meet people where they are, because we don’t even know where we are as we don’t know who we are. Everything is so deeply buried: it may take years or decades to excavate our selves. And if we do so eventually, we may find it even more difficult to meet people where they are because by then we would have radically different software installed in us, resulting in a dramatic difference between the languages we speak.

illustration by @launshae: communication between different languages is almost impossible
illustration by @launshae: communication between different languages is almost impossible

All in, this makes life very difficult to live. It may be easier when we’re all stuck in boxes trying to speak the same box-language that society tries to instill in us. Everything will be fine if we believe in the same definitions of success and wellness. We may not even notice the hollowness, the disconnect, and the dissonance. Every time we reach a society-defined milestone like getting that bigger apartment and that coveted career promotion we have a burst of adrenaline. That sureness. That confidence. Some people may lead their entire lives that way, pursuing something until their very last breath. Maybe that is okay if it doesn’t cause too much harm? I am not in a position to say.

But the original intention I had when I first started writing this is to point out how difficult it is to actually communicate and relate, especially across generations and cultures. We may not even relate to our peers very well, or to our own siblings who are born barely a couple of years apart, even if we are raised in the same family and environment. 

There is a lot of suffering because we spend our lives expecting something that may never come. We want people to truly understand and love us. But can they? We try changing people to meet our expectations. We attempt to change ourselves. There is disappointment, frustration and even heart break. 

It is the same when it comes to the expectations we have of this world. We want people to be kind, empathetic and ethical. We want governments to consider us as people, we want leaders and fellow citizens to “do the right thing”, whatever that means. But can they? Can this world with these entrenched systems raise human beings who can be who we want them to be? What would it take for us to start truly getting to know our selves and prioritise educating people as human beings, not as though we are factory-made robots designed to play a narrow role in our economies? Is this even possible in the context of survival and global competition? I fear we keep looking for answers in the wrong places, because we are not asking the right questions.

But I am not criticising this world, no matter how I sounded. I think it is difficult to ignore the legacy of a species with fragile bodies thrown to survive in the wilderness faced with existential threats at every moment. I can believe we have done whatever we can, given the circumstances. This is my way of trying to meet the world where it is. 

Trying to understand and accept the psyche of human beings including ourselves is simply being realistic, and not carrying fantasies that will inevitably make us suffer. There have been too many instances we take things too personally when it helps to understand what is happening on a systemic level. I don’t believe there is a lot of agency in people’s actions, as though they are purposefully choosing their decisions. I think most of us are only capable of making decisions shaped by the boxes that imprison us. It is a difficult concept to accept, especially if we think of evilness and criminals. 

But it takes a village to raise a child, and the last time I checked, we probably never really had a village to raise any of us. We have put too much responsibility on individuals, when every body is having difficulty coping with living in these systems. Some people react badly when they have to cut off pieces of themselves, and they respond by believing they have to cut off pieces of other people. It is their own screwed up form of internal justice? Others believe they have to cut off pieces of others in order to remain safe in their boxes. 

To contemplate that we have very limited agency in our choices is a very depressing idea. We all want to believe we can change, we can change other people too, and therefore we can change the world. Hence we repeat history over and over again, doing the same things over and over again expecting different results. The starting point is already flawed, because we are trying to solve problems which we don’t understand why they become problems in the first place.

When we can see truly who we are, what we are truly capable of and what is unrealistic to expect, I think that is when we have a chance of solving our existential issues: peace, war, harmony, crime, communication, progress, evolution. Else, I think we’re primarily the same people, with better technology. And this will continue to perpetuate hurt. 

This is the same whether we are thinking about the world at large, the way we relate to others, and the way we relate to our selves. We cannot expect people to see beyond their boxes when they don’t even know they are in a box. It is not they don’t want to see us, it is simply because they cannot. We cannot remove barriers when we don’t acknowledge they exist, and to acknowledge that they exist we first have to see that there are barriers. We have to first learn to see, but preceding that is to even have that awareness that our sight is impaired.

So how do we become aware, and can we make other people aware, especially if they are not at that place to be aware? Is it harmful to force that awareness on people if they are not ready?