John Steinbeck about understanding people


All Writings, Individual, Psychology, Society / Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

John Steinbeck is a great writer, as the Nobel committee seemed to have suggested. He answered the recognition in his own way. It is a pleasure even reading his quotes. As he says, understanding other people – that would seem rather obvious to be the cornerstone of communal living, of individuals co-existing in society. While we have surely seen the evidence of this, we seem to have gravitated toward a kind of pessimism for fellow humans. Perhaps, we are witnessing a lack of reason, coinciding with an unwillingness to communicate clearly, constructively, and deeply. Hierarchies of society are challenged, and social cohesion seems to suffer to the point that the individual seems to be not only the focal point but also the sole concern for many. This is understandable, though.

During the past few days, I was considering some observations and also doing some personal reading. There were a couple of articles on toxic personalities, and then, on polyamory. I went through a few documents such as: “8 Things the Most Toxic People in Your Life Have in Common How they make you feel and what you can do about it.“; “Why Do People Choose Polyamory?” Then, a little while later I was going through some quotes, and I came across an interesting quote on Goodreads by John Steinbeck. Based on these connected readings and that quote, the rest of this article considers understanding other people, and also another human being.

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself

Of course, more than the context of the quote is at play here. He said: “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” In this case, John’s own personal life is what makes his statement interesting. There is, in this statement, prima facie, a feminine attribute. It speaks of “feeling people within oneself“. This is not to say, a man cannot do so, but characteristically we would attribute such empathy to the feminine quality of a human being – be it a man or a woman.

Feeling “them” people, as Steinbeck says

I can only surmise, that John is speaking of a general kind of empathy. In this, one is not focusing on any one particular individual. Rather, one is deriving an understanding about people from a generalized connection with fellow humans. This should be easy to understand, as it should come naturally to be able to have a level of understanding simply by the sharing of this common denominator we call humanity.

John as a child

Now, he speaks of feeling “them”, the people. And it makes sense. Even in a crowd, we sense a commonness with the rest. We can feel them. And, then, this feeling narrows down to certain individuals. You might say, that our current experience with social networking should enable us to sense this. We should be able to feel the people around us; in a healthy way, not in the way of fear and paranoia. Rather, we should be able to feel them with love, with kindness, with a benevolence. At the same time, it would be prudent to accept that there are individuals – toxic individuals – who can tarnish, yes taint, our experience with mankind in general.

Understanding people

This is, to me, the interesting part of John’s observation: “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” How does one come to understand other human beings? Feeling people is one thing; understanding people is at another level. The emotional and intellectual levels need to work and collaborate. Aside from that, there are other levels that one explores only with time. Thanks to John, he makes this connection by appealing to empathy. It takes a certain level of courage; perhaps, not exactly being fearless, but an accepting kind of courage that is willing to see people for who they are, and what they are.

While one is doing so at a personal level, there is a complex interplay of one’s own perceptions, the tendency to project on to others one’s own flaws and strengths, etc. So, each one is in a process of eventually feeling people through a personal inner world. This inner world is accessible to oneself, but, before one may get to it one has many layers of personality interacting with the layers of the different strata of society. This plays out in complex ways on social networking and in less complex ways, albeit far more practical, when one is in physical proximity to “people”.

Understanding human beings through feelings as John connects the idea

John Steinbeck in 1939

One thing we may wish to remember is this: Our understanding of people is still a connecting together of perceptions that we have gained from our experiences with individuals. Needless to say, we have had different kinds of experiences and different levels of them with the individuals in our life. We can also say, it is next to impossible to find a replication of the significant individuals in our lives in the rest of society.

And while I am writing as these words, the thought obviously occurs, that for the most part, individuals today don’t have the time or the inclination. While writing words – laboriously, with intent, or with an ease of expression – practical human relations seem to be suffering from the number of things asking for our attention.

Understanding with empathy

Yes, this surely includes the number of people. So, going back to the original idea: It’s quite good to have that general fellow-feeling toward people, but it is empathy that connects us to the individuals among them. It is that empathy that gives the understanding that relates to feelings, just as John Steinbeck may have wanted us to understand.

What do you think about such empathizing? Does it give you a sense of fulfillment, or is it rather a source of tiredness? Perhaps, it is both. Thank you, for taking the time to read and possibly think over these matters.

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