If you ask people to give you the single most important lesson life has taught them so far (as this Reddit thread recent did), you’ll often get a pithy epigram along the lines of:
You can never trust people. You can never really know them. You can only depend on yourself.
We all like to pretend this isn’t true. We don’t want to admit that we don’t truly know the people who sleep in our beds, who raised us, whose shoulders we’ve cried on, who we love. To view the world as a horde of unknowable strangers with souls we can never infiltrate is conceivably even scarier than accepting that we’re alone in the universe.
But it’s valid, just not for the reason we usually assume. The assertion that you can never trust other people is not a toxic twist of individualism. It does not mean other people are inherently malicious or evil. It doesn’t mean you are uniquely pure and ethical.
It’s true that we can never trust anyone because we can never know them and we can never know them because we can never know ourselves. Which means they don’t know themselves either.
We can’t know ourselves because our selves are not static. We do not have much in the way of a fixed identity. Sure, we have our traits and tendencies, idiosyncrasies and predispositions.
But people change. Grow. Crumble. Escape. Lie. Morph. Get lost. Give up.
Let’s be real. How many times have you surprised yourself? Gotten angrier than you ever knew possible, to the point of scaring yourself? Faced a challenge that seemed insurmountable and excelled at it? Been hopelessly scared, then drawn upon a well of courage and grit that didn’t exist a moment before? Found happiness in something unexpected and simple? Realized you don’t know everything about yourself?
We’re not even good at making assessments of ourselves. So we’re screwed when it comes to other people. The problem comes when we think they are static, even if we’re not.
Ken Wilber writes in No Boundary that most of our problems come from our insistence on drawing boundaries. When we try to ‘know ourselves’, all we do is draw lines between the self and not self. Which is fine, except that boundaries automatically create conflict.
If the self is nothing but a collection of arbitrary boundaries, then those boundaries are always liable to move. When we think we know someone else, all we’ve done draw lines.
In short, measuring and defining who a person is, in a concrete way, isn’t really possible. Boundaries shift. People change in unexpected ways. Or we find out they were hiding aspects of themselves all along. Sometimes they do things and they don’t know why.
We recognize this fluidity in ourselves, yet we rarely cut others the same slack.
One of the hard parts of being in your early twenties is beginning to uncover all the secrets your family kept from you. My family are relatively open about most things, and I had a habit of eavesdropping as a child, but no one gets through life without finding at least one skeleton tucked away in their parents’ closet.
Drug addictions. Dead children. Infidelity. Prison time. Serious illnesses. Military service. Organized crime gang membership. A second family and complete double life. Murders. Gambling problems. Enormous debts. Those aren’t all my family, though I’ve heard stories of all of them from friends.
The fact that these things are hidden from us is perhaps our first sign that people are not just their surface. In the aftermath of painful revelations, it’s understandable to feel like no one is trustworthy.
Again, we miss the point: people aren’t untrustworthy, they’re just inconsistent and liable to change. We have to acknowledge that we only see one side of them and they only see one side of us.
It might not be a good idea to trust people, but it’s a worse prospect to never trust anyone.
If we can describe our identity as a set of boundaries, we can also define it as a collection of stories. The stories we tell about ourselves are what make us, even if we make them in the first place.
Socrates said that the purpose of philosophy is to know yourself. Some people maintain that every relationship, every success or failure, every problematic family member, every life event happens so we know ourselves better.
My generation (I’m not technically old enough to be a millennial but let me sneak into that category) claims to hate labels.
We shirk at defining our relationships, religious affiliations, sexualities, cultural identities, job roles, ethnicity, class, and apparently also hate being called millennials. They’re viewed as restrictive, controlling, limiting. There is tremendous power to shrugging off labels that don’t suit us.
Yet we also like hearing tidy little explanations of who we are.
We like the right kinds of labels. Tarot cards. Astrology, star signs, horoscopes. Myers Briggs. Love languages. Buzzfeed quizzes. Our collective pursuit of self-knowledge drags us all over the globe, towards religions other than the ones we’ve rejected, to meditation, psychedelics, a billion self-help books, probing the past, therapy. We like pretending we can know ourselves and by turn, others. We share more of ourselves, in the hope it will help others know us.
We can’t eliminate labels, like it or not. They exist for a reason. Language is nothing more than a series of labels.
Perhaps we are just looking for stories to replace the ones we’ve rejected. Most fundamental human drives are unchanging. Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs after all. The more we fight to crumble parts of our selves, the more we need to find replacements. Brandless brands are still brands. Rejecting a label means labelling ourselves as unlabelable. Shifting the position of a boundary does not vanquish it. And labels are boundaries.
P.S. If you want posts like this delivered to your inbox three times a month(and a handwritten postcard from me because snail mail is underrated), sign up here.