Has anyone ever told you that you remind them of themselves? When I hear this I don’t both to correct them. After all, I can’t judge by their experience which I’ve not had. But in the back of my head I’m generally thinking “not bloody likely.” I’m sure I do actually remind them of themselves in that my presence brings up some small memory of their past, and yet I tend to feel that whatever it is they believe they see in me which they think is familiar is, in fact, a making of their own mind and not me at all. Perhaps that is only vanity speaking.
I saw a girl in the student union yesterday. She was walking with her family, trailing along behind her parents and siblings, just slightly apart. She was too young to be there, maybe thirteen. She wore a long tan coat, a man’s wool overcoat. It was only a little large on her, still small enough not to disguise her slender build and tall frame. She had plain light colored hair, not quite blonde, not yet brown. Her face was calm, almost remote, yet intense and observant at the same time. Her stride was sure and unladylike. Her head swiveled to track me as mine swiveled to track her. Then, blink, she was around the corner and I was outside heading down the stone steps.
She reminded me of myself.
That is a rare thing. Very few people remind me of myself. I can recall three in my life. The first two I could see myself in only after long acquaintance, when friendship had burned through the facades we all present.
Marilyn was one. At first she confused me. I didn’t understand her. She was so unhappy, though in time she was able to start making a new life for herself. It was as she did so that I began to see that we were so much alike. Had I been born earlier, in a slightly different time, to slightly different parents, I could have been her. Perhaps I would have trod the more traditional route. Perhaps I would have let myself be pushed, felt just as helpless, as confused and angry and depressed. Perhaps it would have taken me that extra twenty years to find my self-confidence and start making my own life.
We were so much alike – reserved, fierce, intellectual, frustrated, determined, and caring. I miss Marilyn. The first years of our friendship were rocky and uncertain, but the last few were strong and sure. I could speak to her about anything and she would understand. Listening to her, she made me understand things that seems so strange, were outside my experience. We could be ourselves with each other. We spoke of grief together once and both agreed we weren’t going to fall apart over it. She understood exactly and never felt slighted or diminished that I didn’t cry for her.
The other was a young man at college, the epitome of a geek, so introverted that at times he seemed in another world. He never meant to be rude, or cruel, or uncaring, he simply didn’t comprehend how his actions impacted others. I forgave him many things because I could have been him. Had I not made the conscious decision to engage with others, I could simply have followed my inclination to curl away and shield myself from the world. I could have so easily dived into an obsessive world of fantasy and computers and melancholy mood swings. I probably could have even convinced myself I was happy there. We keep in touch, in a crazy stilted way.
Then there was this girl, who in her look and in her manner what was, fifteen years younger, my twin for that brief instant. How much of that was the girl and how much was the memory of myself I projected on to her? How much of everyone we ever meet and know is ourselves projected on to them? The Dharma always warns of the prejudices and concepts through which we block the reality of the world. How much more so does that apply to people?
They say kindness starts in pain. Compassion is built from our shared suffering. I recently practiced gratitude for sadness, an experience shared by countless others. How much of the suffering we see in others is theirs and how much is ours? The causes and conditions of suffering are so varied and unique. How can I ever be certain what actions I can take to help them? How could I do harm by mistaking their suffering for my own? These are not nagging self-doubts nor recriminations nor despair at ineffectualness in tackling a seemingly insurmountable task. These are simply questions to be born in mind and solutions to be worked towards. If the task is insurmountable, then we have forever to accomplish it.
What is compassion, what is empathy, and what is projection?