Coming back from Europe last week reminded me of coming back from Chile and the Peace Corps back in 1980. This time I was only gone five months, back then it had been 30. Trying to explain to anyone what I had experienced was pointless, because no matter how carefully chosen your words, no one who hadn’t been there could really know. And, with the exception of the uniquely insightful and curious, I suspect few really care.  

I shared this insight with a young French college student a few years ago and he understood immediately. He commented that he had recently spent a full year drifting around the globe, only to return home to his parents in Normandy who’d questioned him for 15 minutes. Then they began discussing lunch. And our experiences pale alongside those of soldiers returning home from war. How could any of us who haven’t been there grasp that? But then there are many things I can’t know: What it’s like to have a son or daughter, to shoulder commitment to a wife and family? To be extremely wealthy, or even poor? To be a woman, or black or Muslim? To be an addict, or live in a Haitian slum?

All of of this is just an amateurish way of commenting on individual lives and the perspectives those lives create within each of us. We each live in our own reality. Two people stand side by side on the same street corner at the same moment, and their individual perceptions are colored by everything from their genetics and gender to their culture and their individual life experiences. What each would call reality is a fictional construct unique to them…no one else experiences it.

As any communications specialist will tell you, this has extreme ramifications. In order to truly communicate with someone, they will say, try to understand them, try to see an issue as they see it. My point here is that is impossible. You can’t truly understand them. But what’s important for my purposes are our own expectations of others: They can never truly understand you either, and you will be much happier if you quit expecting them to. It’s more productive to ask for acceptance and tolerance…and offer the same.