Constrain or Liberate

Everything you take to be true about another person can only ever be part of the situation.

For one part, you can only see the other from where you stand, from in amongst the commitments, values, expectations and way of making sense that are particular to you. To see this, just think for a moment about how differently someone’s brother or sister, lover, parent, friend, colleague or customer might describe the person in question.

For another part, there’s much more to every person than any of us can tell. Unfathomable depths, history, hidden intentions and wishes, longing, suffering, hopes, fears – many of which will be available only to the person in question and some hidden even from them. You can only guess at these, and your guesses are just that – a hunch about the inner world of the other. You can easily be wrong about all of this, even when you’re feeling most certain.

The consequence is that whatever account you have of another is never simple truth but always an interpretation on your part: a fitting together of what you can see and experience directly in a way that makes sense to you, in your world.

For any set of observable ‘facts’ there are a host of coherent interpretations you could choose, each which lead to different places. And there are better and worse interpretations available or, said more simply, better and worse ways of accounting for the other.

Some interpretations imprison you, and often the other person too. Interpretations that involve blame, resentment or rigid judgments tend to produce this, committing you to tight circles of action and emotion that cannot easily be broken. These are I-It interpretations, fixing the other as if they’re an object rather than a person.

Other interpretations can free you both, particularly those that invite curiosity and inquiry on your part. These are I-You interpretations, treating the other as a mystery to be understood rather than as an obstacle to be circumnavigated or a problem to be solved.

Which kind of interpretation you choose matters, because each leads to different kinds of action, to different kinds of conversation, and ultimately to different kinds of relationship.

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Compfight cc

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