“Never judge a book by its cover.”
It’s an old phrase and the concept seems simple enough: don’t assume about a situation until you’ve seen it from the inside. It seems simple enough, but when this phrase is applied to people, we can often find ourselves solving one of the hardest problem known to man: reading people.
I used to think I had the hang of it, being able to give a good read on people was something I prided myself on. But as with almost everything else lately, I am reevaluate.
A few weeks ago in the hellish pace of grad school, one of my professors gave us an assignment that set out class into mass panic: Prepare a two minute speech and tell a story you think says the most about who you are. While I racked my brain to find the ultimate story about myself, I was not thinking about anyone else’s story, which is selfish, but true of everyone who walked in the room. We only cared by comparison, by which I mean, we only cared if someone else had the better story.
As it turned out that would have been a losing battle, because all of our stories spoke volumes about the way we saw the world, what we cared about in this world and who we clung to in it. The two-minute stories revealed broken girls, hurt boys and even people who lost their childhood friends to lightning. And the jolt for me was that I was not as good a reader as I thought.
It’s unsettling to realize this and sometimes realizing can hurt. When the people who trust turn out to have chapters of malice and deceit in them. When the people we love have chapters of self-hate or self-doubt in them. But then there are those beautiful, great, small, shiny moments when people show a flicker of something unexpected and perfect. When they show us there is no wrong answer, when they give us something that is right because it’s illuminating.
One of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Adichie, speaks about this in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Speaking of how roommate in college asked her to play some of the popular “tribal music from Nigeria,” she broke out her Mariah Carey CD. She outlines a wonderfully sharp case for avoiding the single story and finding an “authentic” voice, saying:
“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
Today, be open to seeing those flickers in the people around you. Allow another facet of someone to surprise you and maybe even show someone a flicker of your own.