When I was in college, a sociology professor related a story that has intrigued me for years. Another sociology professor decided to study the homeless. She spent a year living on the streets, immersed in the lives of those who dressed in rags, stood at street corners holding “will work for food” signs, and pushed buggies of tin cans down the road. What she found is that many of the homeless considered their dumpster diving and trash can digging to be beneficial to society; they could use the cast-off clothing and recycle beer and coke cans, and it wasn’t wasted.
Their motivations didn’t match the outside world’s perception.
I thought about this when I read Bernhard Schlink’s The Weekend. The novel has nothing to do with street people, but everything to do with how we perceive others and judge their motives. It raises an interesting question: how well do we know others’ motives?
A convicted terrorist has been pardoned. His overprotective sister Christiane invites old friends to spend a weekend with the newly-released Jörg at her country house. As the weekend progresses, we read the thoughts of the friends about each other. Most of them parted company three decades before, but the moment they walk in the door, they begin judging.
- Henner, Christiane’s old lover, is still baffled why she rejected him, though he assumes (wrongly) that she was in love with someone else.
- Christiane is horrified that Marko, a fan of Jörg’s type of revolution, intends to force him to rejoin the cause that landed him in jail. Both the sister and the revolutionary attribute different motives behind Jörg’s plea for clemancy. Both are wrong.
- Dorle, his attorney’s grown daughter, is humiliated by Jörg’s rejection of her sexual overtures. Jörg’s true reason for the rejection is later revealed.
- Henner thinks Dorle’s the type that simply wants to brag about sleeping with a notorious convicted terrorist, but she believes she can help Jörg (and later his son) by sleeping with them.
The list goes on.
Each thinks they know the other’s motives. Each is wrong.
How often do I do this? I gather my evidence: listen to their tone of voice during their cell phone conversation, watch their body language in church, drive past them on the street corner. If I know them well, I also have a history of personal interactions to draw upon. That cell phone woman intends to be obnoxiously loud. That dozing parishioner is only here because his wife dragged him. That homeless guy prefers drugs and alcohol to honest work. That former friend intends to wound me with her careless words.
But can I really know what their motives are?
Sometimes yes. Sometimes the person’s intention is too clear to miss. An author writes a book or the phone company disconnects your service or the store sends a catalogue in the mail. Their motives are clear. Read what I have to say. Pay the bill. Buy the overpriced kitchen gadget.
But when it comes to personal relationships, it’s easy to misjudge motives. Each person is a mystery: we’re not inside them and we can’t see their hearts or souls. But we like to pretend that we do.
I have preconceived ideas about the motivations of my husband, friend or the homeless guy, and I’m loathe to change them, even when I’m clearly wrong. Those ideas may be based on past interactions with this person or someone in their “group”, or based on outward actions and appearances.
Sometimes I’m right.
When I’m wrong, though, nothing good results. Arguments. Avoidance. Distrust. Misplaced trust. Yet somehow it’s easier to judge motives than to ask “why” the other person acts this way. (It’s not possible in each situation, of course.)
But when I ask, it’s like the sociology professor moving under the bridge and talking to her new neighbors. It opens the door to the possibility of learning the other’s motivations, and if they’re willing to honestly express their reasons for why they do what they do, then true understanding can happen.
Only then can I begin to fathom the mystery of another human being.