When a person becomes an idea

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 32s.

Short description: The stories you hear about someone can mean you’re not looking at them as a real person after all.

Here is a fact you cannot deny: you are a person. Let’s draw a dot to illustrate this.

Pretend this dot is you.

When your friends, family, and acquaintances think of you, chances are many things come to mind: how you make them feel; the nice (and not so nice) things you’ve done for them; the memories you’ve created together. These are the narratives and the stories they tell about you—both to themselves and to the people they talk to about you.

That circle around you, the dot, is the collection of stories people know and tell about you. This picture is what comes to mind when someone thinks about you: they think both about the person you are, as well as the memories and narratives they attach to you.

Some people in your life have bigger narratives and stories than others. Take, for example, someone like your boss’ boss, or the person you had your last bad breakup with. When you think about them, you’re able to remember the kind of person they were when you were together, or working with them. As time passes, though, that person moves from being someone you interacted with on a daily basis to someone that’s a memory. You still remember who they were—the dot—but the collection of ideas and stories that surround that person is larger and more intimidating.

This is fascinating.

After you leave your job, you’ll remember the stories about your boss’ boss—stories you both experienced and heard—more than the fact that your boss’ boss was a real person, who struggled to get out of bed every morning and binge watched Netflix on weekends. In a similar way, when you want your partner back after a breakup, or you resolve to dislike them even more, you’re probably building up the idea of your partner in your head—the narrative that surrounds them—rather than recalling what they were actually like as a person.

And then there are a few select people who have even bigger stories wrapped around them. Pay attention to the ideas and stories that pop into your head when you hear names like Adolf Hitler, Jesus, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Beyoncé, and George Clooney. These names probably prompt a big, tangled web of stories—a narrative shaped mostly by the things you’ve heard about each person in the past. These are people who have been dwarfed by their story—a story so large it overshadows the fact that they were ever a person in the first place.

In our minds, these individuals are no longer people. The transformation is complete: they are an idea—a person who has become their story.

— — —

Something beautiful happens when you develop and build a close relationship and friendship with someone. The closer you become with someone, the more you can zoom in past their story to the person they really are, and see them as someone just as complex, vulnerable, and rich as yourself.

The problem today is that it’s harder than ever to zoom in to see this true self. That’s even the case with your friends. When you see a friend’s Facebook update, Instagram photo, or tweet, you aren’t seeing who they are as a person—you’re seeing part of the narrative they are trying to wrap around themselves. You see their perfectly-crafted Instagram beach photo, but not the 25 shots that didn’t make it on Instagram; how delicious their morning latte looked, rather than how ridiculous they looked at the cafe taking a dozen pictures of their coffee before the microfoam dissolved.

In a similar, much bigger way, every anecdote or story you’ve ever heard about a billionaire, celebrity, or politician only feeds and expands the colossal story that’s masked who that person truly is.

This is a dangerous trap, especially today. The reason for this is simple: When we see a person as an idea, we disregard their humanity.

Think about how easy it is to fall in love with a celebrity such as Beyoncé or Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson, while forgetting that you’re actually enamored with the idea of who that person is. Or about how easy it is to feel hatred for a politician. Or about how easy it is to buy into the narratives that surround people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates—however you may interpret their story.

Regardless of whether a celebrity’s narrative is shaped by them or their team, that story is designed to build the idea of that person. Seeing an open, vulnerable version of a person you know only as an idea is a rare event.

Through all of this, there’s one thing worth remembering when it comes to a person who, to us, has become an idea: We don’t love or hate a person themselves. We hate or love the idea of them.

Every person you see in the news, or pass on the street, or spend time with one-on-one, is a person full of flaws, insecurities, and strengths—just like yourself.

You just can’t always zoom in to see that part of them.

Illustrations by Sinisa Sumina.

  • Montse Pericot

    Fabulous post..can you please share with youth!! Today’s youth is wrapped up in the ideas and images of other “people” they see as successful or happy, rather than see that everyone is human, everyone puts pants on in the morning, and they look like a mess when they wake up. All people can be happy or unhappy as anyone else and the stories they put out are the best sides of them only.

  • Interesting to think about!!

    • Absolutely! Been thinking about this for a couple months :-)

  • Kathryn Wood

    The coffee shop analogy made me laugh because I can completely picture it. I love the illustrations. They made your point that much clearer. Great post. I’ll be sharing it.

  • Michael Love

    Really liked the article. We all do this phenomenon but the way you wrote about it gave a great perspective. Getting wrapped up in stories or experiences about a person can make you forget about their humanity and how multi-faceted every individual is.

  • Another wonderful comment from Meg Stout (she couldn’t get Disqus working, so she sent it over email:

    “I do genealogy, and it is fascinating to encounter a narrative from the perspective of the two people involved. For example, after slavery became law in the territory where an ancestor was US Marshall, Indians began to be kidnapped by other tribes in order to be sold to the local Christians. If the Christians didn’t want to buy the captives, they were told the captives would be executed.

    My ancestor, the US Marshall, found a situation where a young Indian boy had been “rescued” from death, but was in rags and infested with lice. He took responsibility for the Indian boy and adopted him as his own son.

    I had always had bad feelings towards the Christian family who had kept the Indian boy in squalor. Then I learned the probable name of the previously anonymous-to-me head of that family. I read the stories that had been passed down about the terrible privation they had faced in settling in that territory. And I saw for the first time that perhaps they had risked their own lives in order to trade money and resources to save that Indian boy from threatened death. I knew the Indian boy had been dressed in rags and infested with lice. Now I saw the possibility that the entire family had been reduced to similar squalor in their attempt to save the boy. Where previously I had despised the family, I could now consider that they had acted with compassion to the best of their ability.”

  • This is one of the best blog posts (or possibly anything) I have read! Thank you for putting this together in such a way anyone will understand. It’s such an important lesson.

  • Azim Anderson

    Really great article Chris. Reminds me of the social psychology concept of Fundamental Attribution Error – where we evaluate our actions in hindsight as if we are the main character of a story, while everyone else is just an extra or a background character. It’s easy to forget that every person has a story especially, like you said, in a world where the superlatives are flooded into our social media streams. Everyone just becomes a background character. There’s actually a word for the cure to this problem: Sonder – the realization that others are real, living people with their own narratives that have a life experience as complex and vivid as your own. And I think finding out someone’s true story is a step towards Sonder. Thanks for the writing as always!

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