painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell
Seven years ago, I wrote a post called Why I Don’t Want to Hear Your Story, describing why bios, OKCupid profiles, and other mostly ‘past-tense’ stories of what you’ve done, are not very interesting. And why likewise, aspirational stories describing what you plan/hope to do in the future (or, in the case of OKCupid profiles, who you hope to do it with), are, to me, mostly uninteresting.
Neither past-tense (historical) nor future-tense (aspirational) stories tell me about who you (think you) are, and what you really care about, right now. That’s what interests me. That’s what I want to talk with you about. We can’t relate that information (presuming we’re even self-aware enough to know it) by telling a story. And since we’re story-tellers by nature, conveying that essential but non-linear information to each other is awkward, unintuitive, and unpracticed.
So in the previous post I suggested six “leading questions” that might evoke some kind of useful sense of who someone is and what they care about, right now, and possibly assess whether the person you’re talking with might be the potential brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend you’ve been looking for. These are the questions:
- What adjectives or nouns would you use to describe yourself that differentiate you from most other people? When and how did these words come to apply to you?
- Describe the most fulfilling day you can imagine, some day that might realistically occur in the next year. Why would it be fulfilling? What are you doing now that might increase its likelihood of happening?
- What do you care about, big picture, right now? What would you mourn if it disappeared? What do you ache to have in your life? What would you work really long and hard to conserve or achieve? How did you come to care about this?
- What is your purpose, right now? Not your role or occupation, but the thing you’re uniquely gifted and inspired to be doing, something the world needs. What would elate you if you achieved it, today, this month, in the next year? What would devastate you if you failed, or didn’t get to try? How did this become your purpose?
- What’s your basic belief about why you, and other humans, exist? Not what you believe is right or important (or what you, or humans ‘should’ do or be), but why you think we are the way we are now, and why you think we evolved to be where we are. It’s an existential question, not a moral one. How did you come to this belief?
- What’s your basic sense of what the next century holds for our planet and our civilization? How do you imagine yourself coping with it? How did you come to this belief?
These are not easy questions, and asking them might prove intimidating or even threatening to some people, which is why in the last post I suggested volunteering your own answer to each question yourself first, in a form such as “Someone asked me the other day… and I told them…”. It’s also why there are supplementary questions to each, to get the person you’re asking started. And the last supplementary question in each group lends itself to telling a story, since that’s what we’re most comfortable with. Even then, some of these questions will stop many people cold, which might tell you something about them right there.
But I don’t think they’re unfair questions, even for the young, though the last two might be a stretch for some. I don’t claim to know my grandchildren well, but I’d be fascinated to hear their answers to these questions. And I’m guessing I’d suddenly know them a lot better than most people in their circles ever have, just for having heard them.
I am rehashing this seven-year-old article for two reasons.
The first is that it’s brought me some realization about what underlies my rather deep-seated and unfortunate misanthropy: I don’t actually like most people very much. Part of that may be that I’m somewhat antisocial by nature; I really do enjoy my own company. But I think the more important part is that I can’t really care about people’s stories — about their past or perceived current situation and their judgements and feelings about them, or about what they hope to do some day. I can care deeply about them, and love them to death, but that has nothing to do with their stories, their “stuff”.
No one can really know what it’s like to be another person, or how they felt or are feeling. And every story is a fiction, just an invention to try to make sense of what we have no choice or control over, so it can never really make sense. I don’t expect you to care about my past or hopeful future story; really, and please think about this if you believe I’m being callous, Why should you, would you, could you care? It’s all a charade, a heavily socially conditioned one, that we should presume to know or care about someone else’s past, or situation, or judgements and feelings about them, or expectations for future change in them. I care about you, now, damn it, and that is all.
The second reason I’m rehashing this article is that since I wrote it just seven years ago (and my situation, my ‘story’ has hardly changed at all since then), my own answers to these six questions (which I volunteered at the end of the earlier article) have completely changed. I am, clearly, not the same person I was seven years ago, and not just because every cell in my body is different.
And one of the things that has changed is that I’m not going to write my ‘new’ answers to the six questions out this time at the end of this post. Though I have given them a lot of thought. And I’d be pleased to talk with anyone about them, on zoom or chat or phone, if you’ve thought about your own answers and are willing to reciprocate.
As long as you promise not to tell me your story.