Assumption is the mother of the screw-up

– Angelo  Donghia, New Yorker and interior designer

I had an idea today – or perhaps it was a thought. I almost wrote, “just a thought”, but realised that would put ideas above thoughts, and that’s just a false promotion.

Anyhoo, it struck me, this notion. It was this: without a whole bunch of feelings and thoughts about the world – and more specifically, the people – around us, it could be very hard to function effectively. But they don’t – by any means – necessarily help us out all the time, either.

What sort of things are in this bunch of feelings and thoughts, then? It’s assumptions, empathy, sympathy, compassion (“feeling with” someone), anticipation of another’s wants, needs or feelings. All of these are about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Neurologically, it’s partially about prediction of events (“if or when X happens, Y tends to follow” becomes “when her ice-cream falls to the floor, Suzie will be upset”).

That’s the logical side of things – but in terms of narrative, it lacks what would be the natural next step for the majority of people: to anticipate and then react to the other person’s need (compassion / empathy / sympathy), perhaps by putting your hand in your pocket to buy another ice cream, getting the hankies ready, or providing a distraction, like letting the ice-cream fall on your own head to make Suzie laugh, rather than cry…..because all of those would be a nicer thing for her.

Some people are very empathetic (watch out for people who ‘catch’ other people’s yawns) and in extreme instances can be irritating in their ever-readiness, meeting, matching, catching the needs of those around them. But they might be the ones who make the world go round, so I’m going to leave them alone.

And there are other people who choose not to “feel with” others, or choose not to at certain times (ranging from ignoring the whinger in your group of friends to “compassion fatigue”  – a term now used to describe the public’s weariness at hearing “too much” about suffering and donating less and less). And we all do this on occasion, whether for tiredness, boredom or other reasons, ranging from the selfish to the “it’s good for them” school of thought. And before you ask, I’m not going to address the issues of empathy and autism and Asperger Syndrome – others are better qualified.

But…

…what interests the Imp today is how we walk around our worlds making all kinds of assumptions about other people; about their thoughts, needs,  desires, dreams. And very often, especially with those we flatter ourselves we know best, we don’t even realise we are doing it.

How often do we hear ourselves and others say, “he did it because…..”, or we explain another person’s behaviour away with, “oh, well, she’s jealous / excited / waiting / plotting….”? And doing this is not a bad thing – I think we need to do it to learn, to interact, but it can be ludicrously off the mark and lead to all kinds of misunderstandings, wrong judgements and rather unusual situations. We usually only find out we got it wrong when we get a surprise (which makes sense, doesn’t it?) or offend (prejudice being the bad extreme of this “thought-about-others” spectrum).

Alfred Korzybski, a profoundly influential semantician,  said that “the map is not the territory”. IE, it’s important to remember that what you believe to be the world around you is not the reality. It’s your perception of it. Others perceive it differently, constantly, and you can perceive it differently, too.

By extension, in the Imp world view (which is ever-changing, of course), it’s best always to be reviewing your map as you move through life – just as if the life ahead of you is uncharted. Because, of course, it is.

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