We never know the full story when we look into someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t matter who it is. Our spouses, our children, our friends, our business colleagues—we all have chapters in our stories that are as yet untold or never told. It will always be that way. The best we can do is get better at listening, remain open to compassion, and craft compartmentalization strategies to balance the myriad conflicts that attempt to overrun us even when we appear to be at our best.
Appearance is always deceptive. It’s why writers have something to write about. It’s why most of us like to read stories, see plays, and watch movies. We trust storytellers to reveal to us the points of backstory we need to piece together a coherent narrative. Sometimes we call that entertainment. Other times we call it the awakening inspired by a cautionary tale.
Life instruction is much harder. Think about the people you will encounter this week. Which of the following might they be experiencing and trying to integrate into the disjointed career demands of their workplace and the to-do lists filling their calendars:
- Might they have a dear friend in the hospital with a terrible disease?
- Might they have just learned one friend is getting divorced and another divorced a year ago in silence?
- Might they be looking for ways to support people living far away whose lives are being devastated by a natural disaster?
- Might they have bet heavily on a seemingly safe investment and lost enormously in its bankruptcy?
- Might they have heard from the IRS that no matter how careful they were on their tax filings they are being audited?
- Might they have recently discovered their retirement savings will not sustain them as they had planned for decades?
- Might they have signed up for a critical deadline at work that is no longer achievable?
Don’t fret; odds are not all of this is likely to happen, at least not at the same time. Yet no matter how well things may be going or appear to be going for someone, you can be assured strife of some sort is lurking behind the curtain. None of us are invincible. None of us can entirely hide from adversity.
You never know any of this is happening to someone until it is revealed—and often it is never revealed, or revealed so long after it occurred you can be of no help. Other times it is you who are overwhelmed by the conflicts hidden from others. Life’s twists and turns find us all. We all have stories no different from tales we read, built on conflict, secrets, revelations, and resolutions.
Some people are better at maintaining the status quo no matter how hard they are being side-swiped in the dark. You know that person at work who seems superhuman, who just keeps delivering and never utters a peep about any kind of distraction or digression. You ask yourself how that person pulls it off. You wonder if such stoicism is sustainable.
Often these “superheroes” (or robots) are not as bulletproof as you think. They might just be very good at separating their life into components, ruling out clouding aspects of conflict to focus on the task at hand. That’s a skill, one that can be developed. Those who are particularly good at it know one thing for certain: it is not a magical power. It does not come with unlimited gas in the tank. It’s a bridge, and while it can be a long one, the beams supporting it are not infinite in strength.
Devising compartments is a coping strategy. Almost everyone figures out how to do this to survive, some better than others. When someone is too good at it, we might think them cold-hearted. That may seem an apt critique in the throes of emotional exhaustion, but it may not be a warranted conclusion.
When we segment our lives into compartments, we attempt to deal with difficult things separately, one at a time, one hour and one day at a time.
The problem with these compartments is that no matter how well we think we construct them, they all have not-so-secret wormholes connecting them. They send messages to each other through an impenetrable network. They shares walls of the same real estate. Those walls are thin by design.
Compartments are awkward. The storyteller knows this, which is why we listen to the storyteller. When the storyteller is ourself, there is all the more reason to listen.
Sometimes I think of song lyrics that have resonated with me and helped me develop perspectives on the compartments of my own life and those I observe in others. In his first solo album in 1984, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote a very simple phrase that has stuck with me:
I recognize myself in every stranger’s eyes.
These simple words of reflection and contemplation put us all on the same playing field. When you take in the faces you pass along the street, each one constitutes a life that likely contains the same levels of success and failure, bonding and betrayal, health and illness, triumph and capitulation. The same holds true for school, for work, for community service, for the organizations you join for camaraderie and insight.
You don’t know the stories of the people around you any more than they know yours. Those stories are difficult and complex. The question is whether the obstacles in those stories will be overwhelming.
Sometimes you can help. More often you really can’t. When you integrate the compartments of your life with theirs, you can always move toward a path of shared understanding.
If you recognize the breakdown of artificial deconstruction in tales of fiction, you can recognize it in the real people around you. More important, you can trust yourself to see it in your own machinations. When you acknowledge the connections in your own compartments, they cease to be traps. That’s when compartments become shared spaces. That’s when real character building begins.