Not That It Matters: Separation of time and space

Judging is a matter of heuristics, but the least we can do is pause and consider how much we don’t understand.

By Victor Tan

uch with some old friends, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in ten years, if only because I wondered what they were doing now and if I could catch up and remember a little bit more about a past that I’ve for all intents and purposes ignored, swept aside, and put in a box. I’d like to recall my encounter with one of them, whom I’ll call the Smart Girl.

The Smart Girl turned out to be someone profoundly different from the person I remember. I remember adding her on Facebook and occasionally checking out her profile from time to time, remembering her to be smart, kind of a loner, and a teacher’s pet. I remember occasionally seeing her in church with either a reluctant or apathetic expression on her face.

I remember the guy who developed an online-only and most decidedly unreciprocated love for her. I remembered that she derived an equation to solve a probability question which our teacher promptly decided she shouldn’t use on account of nobody else in the class understanding it. I remembered her kind of shrinking away from the rowdy boy in class who liked her. She went far. This girl got a scholarship; this girl went to an elite high school; this girl got into a nice college that she can wear proudly on her résumé.

I remember imagining her sit in the quiet solace of the evening poring over books, maybe Jane Austen: an embodiment of what Thought Catalog might call the “Girl Who Reads,” the one that everyone should date. But when I met her again, she was different from the person I’d constructed in my head. She was different, in a pleasant way. In what way, I’m in no position to say, but I will say this: It’s funny when you talk to someone you used to know and realize they’re no longer the person you knew 10 years ago, that they have a sense of humor about things you never knew, and enjoy things you never imagined they would know about.

It truly reveals to you the extent of your unknowledge; it makes you think. I really do have to wonder: At age 12, having spent two years in the same class as her, did I ever get an accurate picture of the kind of person she was? Or did I simply never get to know her?

When I think back on all the conversations I never had, the thoughts I never shared, the life about which I never truly asked—I have to conclude that it was probably the latter.

More often than not, people have their own stories, motivations, inclinations, secrets. Nobody is as simple and one-dimensional, as measurable, as they first appear. First impressions, bad or good, can easily be influenced by someone being sick, frustrated, or having a bad day. It’s possible to be in close proximity with someone for an entire lifetime and never realize what kind of person they are—and develop a picture of them that becomes inaccurate after only a single further glance. It’s possible not only to fail to understand, and to fear what we don’t understand, but also to fear our failure to understand.

Human beings judge, categorize, compare. Looking at my life right now, I realize that I’m constrained by the same few biases in judgment. As people walk past me, I develop mental images and crude categorizations, often unconsciously. Frat boy, athlete, math nerd, party girl, study girl, comp sci geek, prospective soul-seller—occasionally a magnificent Machiavellian bastard. I do this as a heuristic because it’s logistically impossible for me to really know everyone I encounter.

But I do know this much: I don’t understand the Smart Girl’s impassive face yet—I never have, and I probably never will, but at least I’m aware of that now. If I just stop for a moment to learn a little more about the kind of people I live with, the kind of world I live in; if I just talk to people that I haven’t seen for ages, the people I hastily decided that I didn’t like; if I try to learn about them and the way they think, to learn the reasons for their thoughts, actions, and life philosophies…then life will become that much more full of thoughts, connectedness, and understanding. It will be richer; it will be better.

And that’s how life was meant to be.

Victo Tan is the blogger behind Not That It Matters. He is a first-year in the College.