Why Do People Seem So “Weird”?

Do you really know them?

Steven Yates

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Photo by Danny Lines on Unsplash

You’ve all heard the John Donne phrase, “No man is an island.” A friend of mine disputes this. He asserts the contrary: “Everyone is an island.” What does he mean?

Our inquiry here has two starting points:

(1) We (in the West, anyway***) are existentially isolated persons — even if we are married, have children, are gainfully employed, in leadership positions, involved in our communities, and so on.

(2) As persons our experiences of the world are both unique and limited: all that any one of us has seen, heard, lived through, read, studied, learned, is an infinitesimally tiny fraction of what’s out there.

The first just says that no one is inside another person’s head or living another’s experiences.

The second: we probably don’t know as much as we think we do, especially about other people and what might be going on in their lives.

All that we know is what they reveal, verbally or nonverbally, or what their physical appearance tells us. That will vary from case to case. It will give us clues. We’ll learn what group the person belongs to, and perhaps what lifestyle they identify with. But not much more about what’s going on inside.

I wrote about this previously, my point of departure being a brief account of what happened with the Judds (here).

So to frame my question: why do other people seem so “weird”? Why do they say what they say, believe what they seem to believe, and do what they sometimes do?

The two starting points frame what seems to me the best way to approach questions like those.

Even if we’re surrounded by the people in our lives, we’re likely “blind” to a lot of who they really are. What we may see may be as little as 1 percent. Sure, for loved ones, this figure probably goes up somewhat. How much, is anyone’s guess (and it probably varies a lot from case to case).

With strangers, the figure drops to just a little above zero. Unless they’re wearing, saying, or doing something really outrageous or in some other way revealing.

All we see of those we pass on the sidewalk is a surface, I’ll call it. Like the surface of…

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Steven Yates

I am the author of What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory. I write about philosophy (especially the Stoics), health and systems, and the future if we have one.