I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about assumptions. We all make them, thinking we understand what other people are thinking, what motivates their actions. Almost all of our society's interactions are based on the assumption that we are, in fact, mind-readers.
But we're not.
My favourite metaphor for the mind is that of a beetle in a box. Everyone has a box and inside is a "beetle" but it is only possible to look inside one's own box. We can only see the exterior of the box for everyone else. So, in theory, it's possible that everyone has wildly different "beetles" but we assume that everyone's beetle is essentially the same as our own.
Even the oft-cited Golden Rule falls prey to this assumption, exhorting us to treat others as we would wish to be treated. It assumes that what we want is what others would also want. In fact, the truly generous course of action would be to treat others as they would like to be treated.
During a difficult time in my life many years ago, I saw a grief counselor. I was frustrated at how often people tried to "fix" my feelings, telling me to cheer up or that things could be worse or that they could only get better. She suggested that I be direct with people about how I was feeling. If I wanted to vent and complain without getting suggestions, then I should say that. If I wanted to be distracted and not think about my problems, then I should say that. And if I wanted help, I should ask for the specific kind of help I wanted.
We don't often ask for what we want. Society trains us to be indirect, to hint or politely demur. I've often wondered why directness fell out of favour. Is it because it was too often linked to rudeness? Or does indirectness make it easier to adjust to disappointment if we don't get what we want?
To guess what other people want without them having to ask takes considerable effort, empathy and imagination. When I think about it, the fact that we have the success that we do is fairly remarkable. We can accurately guess a person's emotions, even if we're not always as accurate when it comes to guessing why they feel the way they do. The classic example is Othello's error. He knows Desdemona is upset and assumes it is evidence of her guilt rather than fear at being confronted by an irrational accuser.
Maybe that's why books fascinate me so. It's an opportunity to get into other people's heads, to live hundreds or thousands of different lives and experiences. It's a chance to get at least a glimpse of other people's beetles and discover the many ways we are the same and the many ways we are different.