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You Are Always the Other Person

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Imagine that when you die your life is converted into an extremely long, first-person YouTube video, which you may review at your leisure.

While you’re fast-forwarding through it, looking for certain memorable moments, one thing you’d see frequently is a person you know entering the room you’re in, talking with you for a while, and then leaving for a much longer while. Seeing people come and go like this might crystalize one of the poignant realities of living a human life: you’re the only one who’s there from start to finish.

In life, there’s you — the omnipresent Protagonist — and then countless Other People. Most of them are bit players, but some of these Other People are major characters in your story. They might spend quite a lot of time onscreen, but they always remain Other People. You never get to see inside their heads, you don’t get to choose their behavior, and ultimately you know them only by what they do and what they say. Most of the time, no matter how large their role in your story, they’re simply offscreen — somewhere out there in the world, doing who knows what.

I had a surreal moment, while having dinner with one of my favorite Other People, in which I realized that at that moment, as I sat across a Formica table in a local pizza place, that I was the Other Person. At least for my friend, I was the person who was not present most of the day, who at some point appeared at the door, smiled and sat down at the far side of the table, talked about what I’d been up to, ate some pizza, walked with her to the corner, said goodbye, and disappeared again into the distance. I am one of many Other People for her, just as she is for me.

As I was walking home it occurred to me that I was again completely off-screen in her story, and that I am always one of these mostly-off-screen Other People, for everyone except myself. I am a first-person protagonist in the small and specialized corner of reality that is my own life. In everyone else’s life, I’m an autonomous — and to some degree mysterious — visiting character.

This is true for you too of course. Your primary role in the world, by far, is that of an Other Person. There’s only one person to whom you are the first-person Protagonist — to everyone else you are always the other person in the elevator, the diner booth, the bed, the car, the parking garage.

There’s a distinct difference between acknowledging this basic idea that you are someone else to other people, and really seeing yourself as the Other Person you constantly are – someone who’s sometimes physically present with a given Protagonist but usually not, whose inner world is invisible and only theoretical, who’s out of sight and out of mind most of the time, but might appear at the doorway, or in a car coming up the road, or as a notifying ding coming from a phone on a nightstand. All Other People are exactly this sort of “visitor from outside,” and all of us are Other People.

Recognizing our status as a full-time Other Person could certainly help us be more humble and more aware of our effect on others, on the energy we bring into a room (or suck from it). We all know how deflating it is when an Other Person is being difficult, self-absorbed, overly negative, or uninterested. We also know how welcome it is when the person you’re dealing with is easygoing, interested, and pleasant.  

Simply by remembering that your role to everyone else is that of Mostly-Not-There Other Person (and that everyone else is also a Protagonist) it’s easy to be a better Other Person, whether this time it’s as a random co-worker assigned to the same project, a customer coming up to the counter, or a boyfriend going to a movie selected by his partner.

It’s easy to be a better Other Person because being an Other Person happens in short segments, so it’s usually a small task. You can easily be more patient, just for this interaction. You can consciously tone down your frantic energy when you ask someone for help. You can be less intent on getting your coffee made as quickly as you expect, and more intent on being a pleasant customer. When you’re dealing with someone close to you, you can remember the qualities they love to see in you, and embody a bit of that for them right now. These efforts are applied over short periods of time, often only a single moment, and they really matter to people. They change what kind of Other Person you are.

Yes, it’s easy to be a better Other Person, and it’s hard to be a better Protagonist, even though we’re usually preoccupied with our role as a Protagonist and our Protagonist problems. Being a better protagonist, the implicit goal of self-help, is an endless, ill-defined personal quest that nobody else quite understands or can help much with. Viewing life through the lens of Protagonist, you’re essentially faced with the whole existential mess of being human – ageless questions nobody has satisfactory answers for. How do I become a good enough person? How do I master my time and effort? How do I keep my loved ones safe in a dangerous world? What do I pursue and what do I sacrifice? How do I make my life a good one?

While we’re focusing on being the best possible Protagonist in our respective inner stories, everyone else is seeing only how we’re doing in our other, more public role. If you think about what people are admired and remembered for, it’s always for the kind of Other Person they were.

***

Last call for aspiring meditators!

There’s still time to join this year’s group session of Camp Calm: 30 Days of Mindfulness. We’re going to dedicate a little time each day, for one month, to practicing the ancient art of living in the present.

The sale ends tomorrow, so if you’ve been thinking about finally becoming a meditator, don’t wait to sign up. A month from now you could be a daily meditator with a lot of momentum behind you.

Your fellow readers are currently introducing themselves at the Campfire. Hope to see you there.  

[Take me to Camp!]

Photo by Christina

{ 36 Comments }

Gunnar Pedersen August 1, 2022 at 3:26 am

Wow. Again! This perspective, eloquently described by you, immediately spoke to me. Living in each moment, fully being the best “other person” you can, also taking that opportunity to increasingly grow into the different characters we play out onto our own “other persons”. Making this my third moment of mindful raptitudeness, the first two being your advices opening a door and sitting down. Life in smaller pieces does add up to a bigger whole.
Thank you for this, David.

{ Reply }

David Cain August 1, 2022 at 9:38 am

There is a theme among all those posts, I guess — break the big problem of life into small, manageable pieces.

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Tim August 1, 2022 at 3:37 am

Just wow.

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jack August 1, 2022 at 3:52 am

That’s a great perspective to have. Investing in the little moments to be the better other person certainly makes a huge difference on how the relationship develops!

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Kim August 1, 2022 at 4:01 am

David, I love this perspective, thank you!

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Paul Crompton August 1, 2022 at 4:27 am

David, I love your work, but out of curiosity, have you thought about building in sub-headings, to make your posts a little easier to read? I don’t ask out of criticism, but rather thought I’d float this idea across.

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David Cain August 1, 2022 at 9:39 am

I do with longer ones, and use pictures sometimes. This one is sub-1000 words though so I left it.

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Sebastiano August 1, 2022 at 5:17 am

Hey David, this was a very very good one! I’m sharing it around.
(My antennas go up whenever what I read carries ‘headless’ tones lol )

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David Cain August 1, 2022 at 9:41 am

Ah I’m glad you saw the “headless tones” in it, because for me that’s exactly what it’s about. We are a moving window and things come in and out of that window, and that’s life. But everyone else is a window too, and we can easily be a more pleasant experience when we appear in the Other’s window.

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TJ August 1, 2022 at 5:25 am

It’s an interesting thought experiment of sorts, but personally I feel overly self-conscious when imagining myself as an Other Person. Actually, I think I am a better Other Person when I try to just be present in the moment and focus on the other person and front of me and our interaction rather than thinking about how I’m perceived by others and what effect I may have on them right there and then. Maybe it’s the kind of thought experiment you do when you are not in an actual social situation just to see the importance of being a good person to others.

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David Cain August 1, 2022 at 9:43 am

I think some self-consciousness is inevitable when we reflect on being seen from the outside. I do mean it as a thought experiment — not for while you’re interacting with someone, but beforehand, when you know you’re going to be appearing in someone’s life soon. Just a quick think about how you might be a better experience than your Protagonist-habits might ordinarily have you be.

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Rocky August 1, 2022 at 7:39 am

This is a beautiful post David! If everyone were easygoing, interested, and pleasant, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.
I find the more “interested” I am in other people, the better my own life gets.
Gracias David

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David Cain August 1, 2022 at 9:43 am

You know what they say: interested people are interesting people.

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Jo August 1, 2022 at 8:33 am

Simply brilliant! We often hear it said that ‘We are each the only person that we spend the whole of our life with’, but your slant sets this out in a much more accessible way. Thank you.

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Allyson August 1, 2022 at 8:55 am

As many have stated above, this was a brilliant concept that brought home the reminder…Live in the moment! Love your writing of heart centered observations. Thank you!

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Tara August 1, 2022 at 9:15 am

This is great and exactly what I need to focus on right now with my husband, as we are having a lot of conflict and unpleasant communications. I can see my part in the interaction and want to be a better Other Person.

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Casey Cotita August 1, 2022 at 9:24 am

Loved this article, that is a really great lights on moment!

It reminded me of something I ran across recently in Heaven’s River, Bobiverse Book 4 by Dennis Taylor, where I learned that the so-called Golden Rule we’ve all been taught is inferior to The Platinum/Better Gold Rule:

“Treat others as they would be treated” vs the Silver Rule of “Treat others as you would be treated”.

Where they differ: When you receive a guest, you would feed them. But knowing they are vegetarian, you give them something meatless but tasty, rather than a nice cut of meat as you would prefer.

So when we operate in the world as the Other People, we should spend more time thinking about what They desire and give that to them rather than what I desire and give that to them.

Really puts the whole pronouns thing into perspective!

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Segun Babalola September 18, 2022 at 9:05 am

As far as I understand it, the Golden Rule of “Treat others how you would you be treated” does not mean that you force your will/preferences on others. Rather, as in your scenario, it would mean that you as a meat eater would serve a vegetarian guest a vegetarian meal because you respect their dietary restrictions/choices and you would want people to do the same for you.

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Theresa del Tufo August 1, 2022 at 9:34 am

I truly enjoy reading your exotic but insightful observations of life and living. You always incite me to reflect and learn, and sometimes, change my pattern of thinking. Love your audacious and novel ideas!

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Burak August 1, 2022 at 12:21 pm

This is a wow-level, eloquent elaboration of a familiar but long-forgotten perspective for me. Thank you David for reviving it with such a beautiful piece! You are always a very interesting Other Person in my small world.

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David Cain August 2, 2022 at 9:44 am

It is always amusing to me that to most of you I am this distant Other Person coming at you through the ether mostly in the form of words. Meanwhile I’m sitting here in my pajama pants typing into a laptop

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Steve August 1, 2022 at 6:22 pm

This column is the essence of Raptitude for me and what’s amazing about it. I read a fair amount of self-help material but most of it seems overly glib or unrealistic or starry-eyed. Raptitude is deeply humane but also practical and consistently gives me new ways of looking at things that crystallize how to live the life I want and put it into practice. All I can say is thank you.

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David Cain August 2, 2022 at 9:40 am

Aw thanks Steve

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Brandon August 2, 2022 at 10:52 pm

This piece really resonated with my fiance and myself as we read it together — and the last sentence sparked an *immediate* recognition in us: your last sentence evokes the problem of “The Private Language Argument” by Wittgenstein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_language_argument)

In a nutshell: *because* no one else can see inside our minds and see us for who we truly are, then the reality is that there are no less than *4* different versions of ourselves floating around out there! I’ll try to elicit how I arrived at this conclusion, though first one must become at least passingly familiar with Wittgenstein’s argument (ref the wiki link above).

Before I describe how I arrived at this number, let me answer the question of “what is the point of all this complexity?”: it was in making the connection between your article and Wittgenstein’s point that I became humbled to understand exactly *why* people might misunderstand me, think unflattering things about me, etc — and why I should be gracious and understanding about their misjudgments of me.

This is the value of making the detailed/nuanced connection between your argument and Wittgenstein’s: it showed me precisely *why* people who misjudge me aren’t exactly wrong even though their criticism of me probably is.

First, let’s start with the observation that your last sentence evoked in us initially: that we are all so damn busy trying to convince others of who we are, what we want them to remember about us, proving ourselves to them ***because they can’t see inside us and can’t know how great we are***

This observation we then connected to Wittgenstien’s “Private Language Argument” as follows:

– With respect to the observation we made (ie: “we are busy trying to prove ourselves to others *precisely because* of the fact that they can’t see inside us to truly know us”), the lesson learned from Wittgenstein is that ***it’s simply not possible for anyone to truly know another person no matter how much we tell them about us.***

– This is because of *the private language problem* (as explained by Wittgenstein: it turns out that there are 4 versions of ourselves:

– There exists, first and foremost, a true and complete version of ourself: the “uncorrupted” version of ourself (Plato’s “forms”)
– Let’s call this version of ourselves $X$: the *uncorrupted* true identify of our self — and this is 1 of 4 versions of ourself

– But, assuming that every psychologist will probably tell us that we can never truly understand ourselves perfectly, this is not the version we ourselves have in mind when we think of ourselves — we only understand an imperfect view of ourselves
– Let’s call this version of ourselves $X^1$: the *imperfect* understanding of the self — this is version 2 of 4 of ourself

– But that understanding is based on our own, internal, *private language* — which cannot be transmitted externally of ourselves without a loss of fidelity via the translation from our personal, *private*, language — to the *public* language that we all share in common: and so we are only able to communicate a variation of ourselves — one which is a *corrupted* form that itself is based on an *imperfect* understanding of self
– Let’s call this version of ourselves $X^2$: the *corrupted* public description of ourself — this is version 3 of 4 of ourself

– Finally there is the version that the other person, upon hearing $X^2$, translates into their own personal, *private* language which -again- carries a loss of fidelity in translation and introduces yet further *corruption*
– This final version of ourselves we can call $X^3$: the *2nd*-corrupted description of yourself, this one held in the mind of the other person — this is the 4th and final version of ourself (well, after this person communicates their version of you to a 3rd-party, the versions of ourself really start to get out of hand!)

Reflecting on the above, it becomes clear: not only do we not truly understand *ourselves*, but it is impossible for another person to ever truly understand us — principally because they cannot get into our own mind and see us for who we really are but are forced by reality to only ever be observers sitting on the outside and trying to understand us based merely on our own words and actions.

Moral of the story: try not to take anyone’s perspective of yourself too personally. First, even *you* do not truly know yourself completely. But even then, you are literally incapable of transmitting a perfectly accurate understanding of yourself to a 3rd-party: along the way, due to imperfections in human communication, there are no less than 3 corrupted versions of yourself in play. Have a bit of grace, we are all just doing the best we can at this game called Life.

{ Reply }

Brandon August 2, 2022 at 10:52 pm

Oof. The formatting is awful, I’m sorry. Hopefully it’s digestable and interesting enough to make it worth slogging through!

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David August 4, 2022 at 9:59 am

Thanks for this Brandon — it is an interesting concept and I was able to follow it despite the formatting.

Others’ assessments of us are definitely *very* far from the reality of what we are. Here’s a complicating factor though, just to play devil’s advocate — it might be more important what others think we are than what we really are. We are social creatures, and status is allocated based on what others perceive a person to be, not who they really are. Being liked and championed by everybody has enormous advantages, so X-4 might be a more relevant variable to a particular human’s wellbeing than X-1 or X-2. But it is helpful to remember how distant those “selves” can be from each other.

{ Reply }

Colin Smith August 3, 2022 at 7:09 am

Hi David, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I always enjoy reading your posts, but this one took my breath away, as I had not considered things this way at all. It opened up a whole new vista for me, and for that, I am most grateful.

I also appreciate the insightful thoughts of fellow commentators. They have added a further circle around the topic.

Feeling blessed to be in this community.

Colin

{ Reply }

David August 4, 2022 at 9:59 am

I really appreciate the comments on this site too! It wouldn’t be the same without them.

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Salisbury B August 7, 2022 at 6:19 am

Have you ever been so close to somebody that at times you feel what they feel? In these moments, your protagonist-like statuses merge. Most obvious with newborns, but you really can feel this way with other adults- when something bad happens to them, you feel it as happening to you.

Related to this, we evolved living in small tribal groups, rather than the strange, hugely varied, urbanised, long distance, much mediated way we live now – personal boundaries within a small, very-well-known group are much more fluid, much less separate (though stronger between the group and the outside world). Protagonist-status here would often expand to include others, i think.

Self-help as an endeavour – vital as it is to those of us who need it! – is strangely lone and separate a lot of the time, as though we’re learning behind the scenes. The modern fame obsession relates to this. And people with low (to my mind, more like we evolved to have) personal boundaries (empaths, eg) suffer, because our social units are so big and spread out. I don’t think we were made to be lone protagonists.

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Legradda August 10, 2022 at 12:10 pm

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David Smith August 12, 2022 at 5:54 am

David,
I’ve been back to read this three times now and it delights me each time. Like most words I find here the message is challenging and encouraging. Excellent.

David

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A.P. August 12, 2022 at 10:38 am

It’s an old phenomenon known as “sonder”

https://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/post/23536922667/sonder

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David Smith August 25, 2022 at 1:01 pm

I read this when you first posted it and came back to it today and really absorbed the message. I am convicted, will be a better ‘other person’.

Thanks again.

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kris keena August 28, 2022 at 7:39 am

This was an interesting take on the reality of life in our day to day. As an old person, I might just call it ‘good manners’ or social skills. I know of course, that what are called ‘good manners’ are seemingly out of fashion in the modern west. I’ve noticed that privacy, decorum, and modesty seem to have gone missing. Not some old prude by any means-just sometimes wonder where old fashioned embarrassment over rudeness or slovenliness went…oh well. Things change.

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QuickWP September 22, 2022 at 4:29 am

Amazing!!

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