The answer to the perennial question of how to be a better person might lie in how we see — or fail to see — others.
In her wonderfully challenging novel Nonfiction, Julie Myerson’s narrator gives a book reading at which one of her school teachers turns up to listen. She sits in the audience with the implacable expression of certain veteran teachers, “a small frown between her brows”. Hers is a face so etched with judgment that the narrator loses her confidence and, much like a schoolchild made to read out out a section of assigned text in front of her class, she stumbles over her words. Finally, the reading ends, and the teacher immediately leaves without a look or word offered. “I was surprised,” the narrator says, watching the old woman walk away, “by how diminished I felt.”
Who knows – truly knows – how much we affect another’s life? We rarely fathom to its deepest place how much happiness or sadness, how much affirmation or diminishment, we can give to another person in the simplest of things: a smile, a kind word, a shrug, a frown. Often, we are seeking what David Foster Wallace describes as “raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness”. Kindness isn’t the only things we seek; we can sometimes find ourselves desperate even for the disdain or rebuke of others. A disapproving comment might have hurt Myerson’s narrator less than indifference.
Consider Nietzsche, growing blind as he wrote for hours until the pain made his eyes burn and water, working alone on things that might never be read by anyone. His previous work alienated readers, and publishers would no longer print his books. He found only seven people to read his new work, and he begged them for any kind of feedback at all. Having screamed into a void and heard nothing back, he wrote:
“[It] is terrible not to hear a responsive word, to hear nothing, absolutely nothing, to be surrounded by silence, to be a thousand times more isolated than heretofore.”
To hate someone is at least to acknowledge their existence, which is a moral prerequisite for human life. To disregard a person is to say they are unimportant. It is to say, in some non-literal but truer-than-true sense, that they don’t exist. George Bernard Shaw affirms this when he has a minister in The Devil’s Disciple say, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them.”
This deep need to be seen can cause people to show off, to perform themselves for any audience they might be able to capture, but it can also make us act out in terrible ways. In Nonfiction, Myerson’s narrator writes this about her emotionally abusive mother:
“I don’t think my mother ever meant to spend her whole life being angry with me. I used to like to tell myself that she did it on purpose – that she got some kind of special satisfaction from all the spite and accusations and point scoring – but I don’t believe that now. In fact, I don’t think it was ever about anger. I think that all she ever wanted was some love and attention – for people to listen to her, to see her clearly, to understand her for who she was. Because isn’t that all any of us want?”
In central Mexico, in a city in the mountains, in a bar, I once had a drink with a Canadian I’d met at a language school. I was a young man, and he was in his sixties, a disparity in age that showed up in the way he treated my opinions as the inevitable and unoriginal products of not having lived as long as he had. Granted, I was fairly stupid (and remain so, though hopefully a little less today, and even less in the future). My ignorance back then manifest itself as an aggressively secular and naively Marxist worldview. As I finished making a point about the perils of capitalism, my comrade leaned back in his chair, sipped his cerveza, and said, “A European, atheist communist. I get you now.”
But something in his reductive list and the tone in his voice – that of someone who’s finally remembered the name of a song stuck in their head, satisfied that the mystery is solved – made me feel that he didn’t understand me at all. A person is not a thing about which we can have certainty, so looking for it is to miss the human in front of you. A person is one of the deepest mysteries you will ever face. That man in Mexico was looking for absolutes, taking comfort in making a statement about the “kind of person” he was talking to. But mysteries are best approached with questions. That’s why the game is Twenty Questions, not Twenty Statements.
The problem with his reductive list of attributes is that it substitutes concepts for reality, putting the idea of a person in place of the person’s humanity. Labels excuse you from understanding others in all their complexity, believing that a simplistic category will suffice to make sense of them. To some degree, we must see through category labels that obscure the individual within. The Good Samaritan was good precisely because he saw past the tribal appellations that differentiated the injured Jew at the roadside from the Samaritan’s own people. The Samaritan saw the individual and dealt with him as such. This parable is about the triumph of the soul over the whole, of transcending generality to become individuated, of seeing others not as means to some end but as ends in themselves.
There is, however, a different reading of the Good Samaritan parable that tackles this ball from the other direction. The Samaritan looked at the injured Jew and saw what he shared with the Samaritan, who in turn shared it with every other person on the planet: that they were, to use the religious language, made in the image of God. In How to Know a Person, David Brooks writes about a friend named Jimmy, who is a pastor and who treats people with a particular joy and reverence:
“When Jimmy sees a person – any person – he is seeing a creature who was made in the image of God. As he looks into each face, he is looking, at least a bit, into the face of God.”
Sceptics of a more cynical bent sometimes ask if this concept of imago Dei means that God has a human face; it is the reverse. Being made in the image of the Divine means that we are attributed some part of that Divinity. When someone like Jimmy engages with a person, he sees a creature endowed with “infinite value and dignity”. It is that shared spark of the Divine, that refracted transcendence within all people, which moves the Samaritan to help the injured man and that allows us to see people as worth taking seriously. Looking at others this way, we reject easy categorisations and see each person as deserving of care and attention.
Beginning with this shared humanity allows us to make our approach toward others with humility (we all begin with the same dignity) and appreciation (the reverence of recognising something transcendent). But it is only a beginning. From there, it is their differentiating particularities that we should look for, to value them for who they are, not only for who they are in relation to me. In this way, all people share a source, and all people deviate from it with infinite variation. Brooks quotes from Aline P. Delano’s translation of Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, in which the great author describes human beings as “like rivers”:
“[The] water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy, or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every human quality, and now manifests one, now another...”
As I wrote in a previous essay on a similar subject (“Klara and the Sun”: On Friendship and Being Seen), the poet David Whyte believes that the greatest friendships are made of seeing each other, truthfully and in all lights, the best and the worst. Whyte says that “the ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness”:
“Friendship not only helps us to see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses, as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight...”
By truly seeing others, seeing “their difficulties and even their sins”, we are well positioned to help them grow, to encourage them towards the best of who they can be, “not through critique, but through addressing the better part of them ... thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves”. I help them, in turn, to become someone more able to see me as clearly and as compassionately. This is, Whyte says, “the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another”.
David Brooks touches on this virtuous cycle of seeing and being seen when he writes that “the way we attend to others determines the kind of person we become. If we see people generously, we will become generous, or if we view them coldly, we will become cold”. He goes on to say that this observation points to an essential answer to an ancient question: “How do I become a better person?” The response is to help others become better people, beginning by seeing them better.
We started here with a scene in which one person fails to acknowledge another, leaving that person “diminished”. I want to end with a moment in David Brooks’ book where he describes catching sight of his wife standing in a doorway, the afternoon sun behind her as she gazes at a white orchid in a pot by the door. He looks at her “with a special attention” and feels a basic truth ripple through his being. “I know her,” he thinks. “I really know her, through and through.” This knowledge isn’t made up of “something expressible” in everyday language; instead, it is “the incandescence of her smile, the undercurrent of her insecurities, the rare flashes of fierceness, the vibrancy of her spirit”.
“It might even be accurate to say that for a magical moment I wasn’t seeing her, I was seeing out from her. Perhaps to really know another person, you have to have a glimmer of how they experience the world. To really know someone, you have to know how they know you.”
In this moment of transcendence, in which the mundane is transformed into the numinous, the only word to express it is beholding. “They say there is no such thing as an ordinary person. When you’re beholding someone, you’re seeing the richness of this particular human consciousness, the full symphony.”
There is no such thing as an ordinary person. I am resolved to no longer see anyone as ordinary. That seems like a good way to look at things.
• Nonfiction, Julie Myerson (2022)
• The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig (1925)
• The Devil’s Disciple, George Bernard Shaw (1897)
• How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, David Brooks (2023)
• Consolations, David Whyte (2014)