This article has been adapted from a chapter of The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything
I returned home from my third research trip with a tremendous reluctance; I knew what I was leaving and I knew what I was going back to and I didn’t think I could face it again. I sat in the car, looking at our tiny apartment through a dreary, unenthusiastic rain. I did not want to go in to my unappreciative, feckless husband or my quarrelsome children who whined and complained through the homework and chores I had to make them do. I did not want to go in and pretend that I was happy to be home, when in reality I had been far happier away.
The simple truth is that I was miserable at home. Miserable and disappointed and trapped in a way that I think is familiar to many people: I felt oppressed and restricted because I was surrounded by people who, one way or another, had let me down.
For me, it wasn’t that I didn’t love them—all of them. It was just that I didn’t feel happy around them. I felt burdened and overwhelmed. If I got cranky and snapped at my husband, he would immediately fight back with something hurtful, no matter how much laundry he’d left for me or how late my flight had gotten in. If I raised my voice at my son who never put his dishes away, he would roll his eyes scornfully and say, “Don’t freak out,” and there was no one to take my side.
I had recently begun traveling for research on a nursing home company, and that had made my misery even more bitter. I had discovered, to my surprise, that nursing homes were pleasant and caring (the good ones, anyway) and the people who worked in them were selfless and cheerful and accommodating. The particular company I was researching was making specific efforts to do something they called “seeing people as people” and it involved spending time with each other, getting to know their patients in a personal way, and developing a culture of helpfulness. In many ways the unified, helpful, loving feeling of this nursing home company where people took care of those who could no longer care for themselves, seemed to represent what the Celestial Kingdom must be like.
A group of people working together to help others, I was learning, creates an atmosphere of vitalizing contentment you could wear like a soft hug. A group of people in conflict, on the other hand, creates an atmosphere of stifling misery you can feel seeping like poison into your pores. My husband seemed acted like everything I did was wrong, even though I did everything around the house and worked full-time. My children were always unhappy to see me because I made them do chores; they talked back and complained and didn’t appreciate anything I did for them and my husband never corrected them.
I was completely alone, and the gospel wasn’t helping! I had devoted years to fasting, prayer, and temple attendance and still my husband did not change.
And it was too late to do anything about it. I’d always tried to do the right thing, but something had gone wrong; my husband had changed, and I was stuck with the new him. If I didn’t want to get divorced, then this dark dreariness would just be the reality for me, the long endless years stretching away through a dismal fog that couldn’t even rain properly. This nursing home research project had just made things worse. I had caught the glimpse of a better life, I yearned for it, but because of the marriage and family I was stuck in, I could not have it.
It seemed like the best I could hope for was just to endure until I died, and then hope I made it to the Celestial Kingdom where everyone would treat me kindly and appreciatively. I sat in my car for as long as I could justify it, dreading going inside, the condensing fog soaking me with the knowledge that no one in my life charitably loved me.
What’s most amazing, as I now look back on that evening, is just how desperately, blindly, tragically wrong I was about everything I was thinking and feeling in that car. It’s not that I wasn’t miserable—I most definitely was—but I was wrong about why, and about who to blame, and completely wrong about the impossibility of ever having a vibrant, happy life. I was just wrong in almost every conceivable way. Mrs. Wrongetta McWrong is how I now think of myself, and I even use it as my Instagram handle! The fact is, I have a great life now, alongside the very same people with whom I was once miserable, and my husband is an appreciative and supportive partner and my kids are perfectly delightful.
The thing is, I was creating my own misery. And later, I created my own happiness. It all comes down to the pure love of Christ.
Seeing People as People
This talk about seeing people as people needs some explanation. Obviously, we all see people as people—I don’t mean to suggest that we can forget what people are or mistake them for chairs. But there is more than one way of seeing a person.
In research psychology, there is a famous phenomenon called “inattentional blindness”. In a foundational experiment, subjects were watching a video of a basketball game and were asked to count the number of passes made by one of the teams. A shocking number of these people were so absorbed by the task of counting passes that they completely failed to notice when someone in a gorilla suit walked onto the scene and beat their chest right in the middle of the game. You can find this video online and watch it, and you’ll see that it’s basically impossible to miss the gorilla. Unless you yourself start counting one team’s passes. If you get absorbed in that, then you may miss the gorilla, or at least not notice it for the first few seconds, even though you know it’s coming.
The point is, when we are paying close attention to one thing, we can be utterly blind to other things that happen right in front of our noses. Sometimes when we’re really absorbed in a book or a task, we don’t hear people calling our names; sometimes we’re singing along to the car radio and completely miss our exit in spite of multiple signs directly in our view. This kind of thing happens all the time, because our brains can’t be focused on everything at once. If the brain is really focused on one thing, it just doesn’t process many other things that are going on.
That means, we have two ways of “seeing” the people around us. If, for example, I am in this moment entirely self-concerned, thinking about my own goals and interests and fully immersed in pursuing them, then I don’t have room to really see others. When my own concerns are taking up all the energy of my mind, the people around me only matter to me to the extent they impact those self-directed concerns. It’s as though when I look at them, I don’t see fully-formed spirit children of God but basically objects, who have no inner experience at all. They are only as real to me as any other object in the physical world, and I care about them the same way I care about those objects—they may in fact be very important to me in function, but their own divine personhood never crosses my mind. I don’t think about their perspectives or their troubles, I don’t wonder why they see things the way they do, and I don’t feel motivated to help them (except maybe to further my own interests). My mind is focused on its own desires, and has no energy to spare for the desires of others, so it just doesn’t see them.
A chair, for example, is an object. The way I think of it can take many forms—maybe I love it because it was handed down from my grandmother, or resent it because it was a gift I don’t like but can’t get rid of; maybe it’s comfortable, maybe it’s just for show, maybe I have to treat it delicately, maybe it’s so sturdy I stand on it to hang curtains. But because it’s an object, one thing I never do is worry about how it’s feeling! I don’t wonder whether it feels pain, has opinions, is being used the way it wants to be. I paint it or reupholster it or throw it out depending on what I want or need. And if it’s broken, I have to fix it.
We all too often see other people in an analogous way: as functional or decorative items to be used, ignored, or enjoyed, without giving any thought to their experiences, preferences, sufferings, or desires. We also see them as static; they won’t change or improve without our help and input. And when we don’t like them, we see them as needing to be fixed. Most importantly, seeing people as if they were objects makes us highly miserable. What we truly long for in life is loving, human connection, and we cannot have that with objects.
But of course, the people around you and me are not objects! They are people, with their own histories, fears, hopes, loves, wishes, dreams and disappointments. They are as real, as astonishingly, unfathomably, breathtakingly, humanly real, as I am. They have their own backstories and struggles and their own perfectly legitimate way of seeing things that will certainly, unpredictably, differ from my own. They are, in a very real sense, infinite: the thoughts and perceptions and experiences of life that comprise their inner world number in the billions and no one else can ever completely comprehend their complexity. Even if I devoted twenty years to learning another person’s history, experiences, thoughts, dreams, wishes, and disappointments, by the time I was done they’d have lived a further 20 years and I would be behind again. The richness of another human life is utterly and magnificently unknowable.
Seeing people as people means not just seeing, physically, their human shape, but looking deliberately into this infinite and unknowable depth in order to acknowledge that others are every bit as human and valuable as I am. When I do this I cannot help but also see them as worthy of my attention. I am alive to their inner experience (or my best guess about their inner experience)—what they need, how they’re seeing the situation—and my understanding of their humanity calls me to help them or mourn with them or joy with them if I can. Their thoughts and opinions matter to me because I understand that their experiences are every bit as authentic and significant as mine. I may not necessarily agree with them or enjoy them or even like them, but I see their perspective as legitimate and their unique life experience as equal in value to my own.
Charity, the pure love of Christ
This difference between these two ways of seeing people can be described many ways. It comes from the work of philosopher C. Terry Warner, author of Bonds that Make Us Free, and his company The Arbinger Institute, authors of Leadership and Self-Deception. (The nursing home company I researched was an Arbinger client.) Martin Buber, whom Warner credits with first articulating the distinction, calls seeing people as objects the “I-it,” and its reverse, the “I-Thou” ways of being; Warner himself sometimes describes the two ways of seeing others in terms of being “in the box” and “out of the box,” because of the way seeing others as objects cuts us off from people. The Arbinger Institute uses the language of the “inward” (self-focused) versus the “outward mindset”. In my nursing home company, they talked about “seeing people as people”. All of these vocabularies are useful in helping us understand the one thing that matters most: how to have charity, “the pure love of Christ”.
The key point is, when we are absorbed in ourselves, our self-concern can blind us to the internal reality of other people. I may go days, weeks, even years without really, meaningfully, thinking about what’s going on with another person—what their perspective is and how things look to them—because my attention is directed at the question of how they affect me. I might spend dozens of hours thinking about how annoying a person is and how wrong about things he or she is. I might go so far as to talk to others about how terrible that person is, and all without ever, in all those hours of criticizing, spending any time wondering about what their perspective is or how they experience my treatment of them.
On the contrary, when I’m open to seeing people how they truly are, I can be alive to all the relevant things about them. I’m no longer too focused on myself to care about their experience. I’m free to look and see them with the eyes of the Savior. That might mean I’m filled with love for how awesome and generous they are. But it might also mean I’m filled with compassion for the struggles they face that make it hard for them to be likeable. It might mean I can withdraw from an unhealthy cycle of conflict because I can see that they will not be able to change. It might mean I have to protect my children by getting a divorce. But far more likely, it will mean that I can see how my spouse has been wounded by my own selfish attitude toward him or her.
It will certainly mean that, when I’m around them, I no longer feel oppressed and trapped and miserable. Because I am not trapped by the misbehavior of others. I am trapped only by my way of seeing them, which cuts me off from noticing what is good about them.
We can change our focus from ourselves to others. We can start noticing what they do well, we can start learning about their hopes and dreams and struggles, we can start trying to see them as the Savior sees them. The pure love of Christ is to let other people’s lives matter to us. We can’t have equal levels of affection for everyone—obviously we will always love our families the most, and have less love for the stranger who picks our pockets—but we can have an equal awareness of everyone. To the extent that I consider someone else’s lived experience to be just as legitimate as my own, I am developing the pure love of Christ.
So I didn’t need to wait until the Celestial Kingdom to experience a loving, supportive, helpful family life. All I had to do was to change the way I was seeing the family I have here. Because being surrounded by objects is misery, but being surrounded by children of God is heaven on earth, and I am the only one who can choose what surrounds me.
For more on my personal transformation, see The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything, and check out my blog at SoftLikeABrick.com.