Do we need other people in order to understand ourselves?
Most parents and teachers tell students the extremely tired cliché of the consequences of following the crowd. It is said that, in order to be a completely individual thinker, one must ignore what others say. Such advice is certainly true to some extent; unreasonable malice must be forgotten in order to keep some level of self-esteem. However, as with most ideas, this one can not be taken in absolute form. In at least some respects, we need other people in order to understand ourselves.
An excellent example of a literary character that could have psychologically benefitted from social interaction is J. Alfred Prufrock from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the poem, Prufrck desires a relationship with a woman very much, but he refrains from initiating conversation because he fears that he could not hold the interest of a sophisticated lady. Should Prufrock have taken the step to accept other people into his life, he most likely would have discovered, as the reader of the poem certainly did, that he is most articulate. Others would have impressed upon him the beauty of his words and his talent for prose. If Prufrock would have spoken his song a loud, the ladies surely would have shown him what he himself did not understand. Since the ladies would reveal Prufrock’s talents to him, it is true that we need others in order to understand ourselves.
The lesson of learning from other’s opinions of yourself extends much farther than the song of a fictional character. Two days ago, in an art class, my group of students had assigned self portraits due. Most of us brought in photographs of ourselves. Nevertheless, one boy brought nothing and handed us all slips of paper. He told us to write a word to describe him, and when we had done so, he pasted the words on a poster. This must have been a revealing exercise for him because, upon the sight of such descriptions as “bitter” and “sarcastic”, he was shocked. In the case of this boy, he had not realized how his personality appeared to others. Though he might not have thought himself “bitter”, his friend’s comments certainly made him seem that way. The fact that we need others in order to understand ourselves is clearly shown by this boy’s revelation.