Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Complexity of Individuality

The success of the high school social experiment (and to some extent, college) depends on the ability to identify and conform to a type. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it often seems that the most critical developmental years of childhood are spent stripping down individuality in order to fit in. And even if you manage, to some extent, to maintain a strong foundation of who you are in spite of the pressure from classmates, people will inevitably try to fit you into a box; to label you, or use their knowledge of others in order to understand you. 

This is how we come to understand the world. When a baby is learning how to speak, it first learns the names of the objects in its surrounding environment. The family pet is called a “dog.” The parent is called either “Mom” or “Dad.” But each of these objects can be referred to by other names. The pet can be “animal,” “puppy,” “canine,” “Boston Terrier,” or its own name (“Fido,” if you will). But this complexity is confusing to an infant. It is much easier to first identify things by one label. Only with maturity does the child come to understand that a Boston Terrier is a breed of dog which is also an animal, and that this particular Boston Terrier is named Fido. 

Let’s expand this example to people. It is often easier to identify people in our environment based on established categories than it is to attempt to understand the complexity of their personality. I am guilty of this as much as the other person. When I meet someone new, I try to figure out what kind of person they are based on the way they dress, or the kind of music they listen to. Perhaps by asking the right questions I can hit some kind of gold that unlocks the truth of their personality (as if there were a way to unlock a person’s personality). 

This kind of belief is dangerous. It tricks us into thinking that we can know a person, or know ourselves. And it strips away any individuality. As soon as you think you know a person, you reduce them to an image in your head and limit their true identity. 

To put it another way, your behavior towards another person can shape their identity. Human beings are social animals, and we strive to see ourselves the way others see us. So when you treat someone like a criminal, they learn to see themselves that way and absorb that label into their identity. 

But human beings, in reality, are far more complex. It is impossible to really know a person. And in the same vein, I think it is impossible to really know yourself. We can define personality as a set of behaviors that are unique to a person. Yet behavior is easily influenced by situational circumstances. Think, for example, of the classic Milgram experiment in which volunteers at Yale were instructed to deliver lethal shocks to another participant (or so they thought. In reality, the other participant was an actor and was not connected to the shock machine). In a majority of cases, volunteers continued in the experiment until they believed they had killed another person; and all because they were told by the experimenter to do so. This is a classic study in human behavior and provides some horrifying insight into the power of obedience and situational factors. 

My point in bringing up Milgram’s study is that we can’t possibly know how we or anyone else will react in a particular situation. Before the experiment, several prominent psychologists predicted that 1% of all participants would deliver the lethal shock. And yet nearly all of them did! Personality is variable and any attempt to know or understand a person is fruitless.

Rather, I think it is important to embrace the complexity of individuals; to love them because we cannot ever know them. To treat every conversation and every interaction as if it is a gift that allows us entry into another person’s limitless and indefinable life. Only then can we begin to appreciate people for who they are. 

Identity is valuable. Once we start to reduce a person to a label or stereotype, we strip away their individuality and put them into a box. We reduce them to a fraction of what they could be. But think of how much more valuable our relationships become when we realize how important and unique we all are. Perhaps the secret to loving someone is to realize that we can never truly understand them and that every day with them is a mystery.