It seems elementary, right? People are people. Well, duh. Everyone knows that. It’s not like that statement is saying anything new. It’s not saying much of anything at all, really. Saying, “People are people,” offers about as much information as saying, “Apples are apples,” or, “One equals one.” The statement is already self-apparent, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to make it at all, much less write an entire blog post about it.
And yet, I constantly find myself needing a reminder of this fundamental truth: People are people. Because as hard as I try to practice compassion, empathy, and solidarity with others, I’m always tempted to deviate back to my natural, broken state. Selfishness, prejudice, and pride are constantly trying to sneak back into my worldview, and so I have to stay vigilant in order to keep these vices from infecting the way I treat others.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. At the end of the day, we’re all in the same boat. In my faith tradition, we call it “fallenness.” Others may refer to it differently, but we all recognize it. Humanity is plagued with this very accurate sense that we are misguided, broken, even lost. We have this tendency to focus on ourselves, our needs, our desires, and our opinions to the point of obsession. To the point that we can’t see anything else. To the point that we forget that other people are people, just like we are, with needs, desires, and opinions of their own.
It’s easy for us to understand that we are people. Each of us experiences our own lives as complex, important, and somehow central. We’re the heroes of our own stories. And whenever we feel like our personhood is being compromised in any way, we become immediately defensive of it. We don’t want anyone disrespecting us, neglecting us, or discounting us because we matter. We are people, after all.
But the second we look outside of ourselves, it becomes much more difficult to fully recognize someone’s personhood. We can’t experience other people’s lives firsthand the way they do or the way we experience our own. We can’t totally understand the complex feelings and experiences of another person, no matter how hard we may try. We can’t feel their hurt. We can’t feel their deepest needs. We can’t see things the way they do. All we can do is observe from the outside (when we even bother to do that), and that viewpoint offers us a tragically incomplete picture.
We struggle to recognize the personhood even of those closest to us. Growing up, we tend to think of our family members as supporting characters in our stories rather than as protagonists in their own. Far too often, we neglect to consider situations from our friends’ points of view and simply make decisions based on what we think is best. And who among us has not been guilty of prioritizing our own needs above those of our significant other, believing what we need to be more important than what they do? Even when we love someone, we are inconsistent about remembering that they are a person and treating them as such.
How much more difficult, then, it must be for us to recognize the personhood of people we seemingly have no connection with, or even those we perceive as being in opposition to us. We rarely, if ever, consider the fact that strangers on the street, or on TV, or in other countries, are people just like us. And even when we do, we often neglect to carry that recognition into it our conversation and decision-making.
It isn’t our default state to recognize that other people are people. But here’s the truth: People are people. And it’s our job to overcome the temptation towards self-centeredness and to consistently remember this truth. That’s what compassion is, really. And as we begin to practice recognizing this truth in our daily lives, we realize a few important things.
We realize that other people have inner lives that are as rich, complex, and important as our own. Remember that comment someone made that hit you the wrong way because it brought up some difficult memories? That happens to other people, too. Remember when a stranger smiled at you on the street and it changed the trajectory of your whole day? You’re not the only one. Remember when you said something you didn’t really mean and became frustrated by the miscommunication? Yep, other people experience that, too.
Each of us navigates the world with a million different thoughts, emotions, memories, and more bouncing around in our heads at any given time. These things impact the way we act in the present, and the way others respond to them can have lasting effects into the future. It’s so easy for us to take these things into account when we consider our own actions, but we rarely do so when we consider the actions of others. We tend to evaluate ourselves based on our internal intentions, while we judge others only on their external actions.
Recognizing the complexity of others’ internal lives leads us to take into account the context of their actions as well as the actions themselves. Why did that person treat you that way? Did they just receive some bad news? Did you remind them of someone who had been mean to them in the past? Maybe other people are just jerks, but you can’t really know that until you get to know them, their history, and the way they think first. Once you do that, you’ll probably find that other people are just as well-meaning as you are, even though we all fail to act out those good intentions sometimes.
And this gives way to a really freeing practice: giving other people the benefit of the doubt. We’re always willing to cut ourselves some slack when we do something we’re not proud of because we recognize all of the complex factors that go into our decisions. How about we do the same for others? People are people, and if we’re going to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, we should probably do the same for them, too.
As much as recognizing the personhood of others serves as a reminder that they experience the world in much the same way we do, it also shows us that every person’s life experience and worldview is unique. Just as you contain a multitude of memories, beliefs, and opinions that shape who you are and how you approach the world, so does everyone else. And these various factors combine to create drastically different results.
Have you ever wondered how two intelligent, well-intentioned people can look at the same situation and come to opposite conclusions about it? We tend to believe that if everyone would just put away their biases, misguided opinions, and bad logic, they would be able to use their brains and all see the world’s issues the same way. (Specifically, we assume that everyone would come to the same conclusions that we’ve already come to ourselves.) But that just isn’t the case.
And that’s because every single person experiences the world in a different way. No two peoples’ stories are alike, and thus, no two people are alike. We all come from somewhere; we were all taught certain things growing up, and we all experienced things that caused us to either affirm or reject what we were taught. Believe it or not, every person on the planet believes that their opinions are just as correct as you believe yours to be.
But we don’t have to view this as a bad thing. Research shows that groups with more diversity are actually better at solving problems than groups made up of people from similar backgrounds. Sure, they have to work through differences of opinion, conflicting priorities, and clashing personalities, but once they’ve done that hard work, these groups actually come up with solutions that are more effective than anyone else could.
Every person’s experience is legitimate, and thus, every person gets a voice. Your memories, reflections, and opinions matter to you, and those of others matter to them just as much. And they should matter to us as well, because they are just as real and just as valuable as our own. I’m not saying that every opinion is correct or that all worldviews should be considered of equal moral merit. (I’m looking at you, Nazis. You can kindly shut up.) But I am saying that we have a responsibility to hear and seriously consider the opinions of others, because they are just as real as our own.
We can get stuck in a rut of thinking that our thoughts and opinions matter more than those of others simply because they’re ours. But we often forget that every single person on the planet feels the exact same way. It doesn’t have to be like this, though. When we humble ourselves, admit that we can’t possibly be right about everything, and truly listen to the experiences and opinions of others, we are opening ourselves up to a more wholistic, compassionate, and accurate view of the world. And that’s a beautiful thing.
But more than anything, recognizing the personhood of others reminds us that other people matter. This is a simple truth, but one we all too often forget. We are ambitious, self-centered individuals who will do just about anything to get what we want, and in the midst of all that, we often lose our sense of the value of other human beings. It’s not that we purposefully decide that other people aren’t important. We just get so focused on our own goals, our own ideas, our own self-improvement, that we neglect to stop and consider that others matter just as much as we do.
The reality is that they do. Whether it’s your best friend, your worst enemy, or a stranger on the street, every single person matters. Each and every human being on this planet is a person with agency, intelligence, feelings, and something to offer the world, and thus every single one of them has value.
In my faith, we sum it up this way: Every person is created by God in God’s image, and thus, every person has worth. I think that’s beautiful. But you don’t have to believe in God to recognize that people have innate value. When you recognize that every other person is a person just like you, it’s not much of a stretch to recognize just how valuable they are. Because they are important. They matter.
No person is more valuable than any other. I matter a whole lot to myself, but I’m also called to remember that every other person I encounter matters just as much as I do. I’m no better than anybody else. My needs, desires, and goals are no more important than anyone else’s. And neither are yours.
We all need the same things: food, water, shelter. At the most basic level, we all want the same things: love, peace, fulfillment. Sure, our goals may differ and even seem to conflict, but that doesn’t mean that any one of us is any more or less important than any other. We’re all the same. We’re all equal. And we’re all called to care for one another.
Taking this truth and applying it in one’s life is difficult. It requires both depth and breadth, recognizing just how much a person matters and then applying that recognition to every single person on the planet. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. We celebrate the best among us who have already recognized and practiced this truth, but in reality, it’s the responsibility of each of us to do the same.
It starts with us. We have to love and value ourselves. For most of us, that’s a natural practice most of the time. When we struggle with that, we have to start there before we can love anyone else. But once we’ve got that part covered, it’s time to look outside ourselves. It’s time to love other people the same way. It’s time to heed the great command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We start with those closest to us and work our way out until eventually, our compassion includes everyone in the world. And we can only do that by first recognizing the personhood of others, the truth that people are people.
Your friends are people.
Your family members are people.
Your peers are people.
Your coworkers are people.
All of them: people.
Those you pass on the street are people.
Those you wait behind in the store are people.
Those you see on TV are people.
Those you read about on the internet are people.
Everyone you see is a person.
Those you agree with are people.
Those you disagree with are people.
Those you like are people.
Those you hate are people.
And those who broke your heart? Yep: people.
Rich people are people.
Poor people are people.
Politicians are people.
Criminals are people.
Doesn’t matter; still people.
Straight people are people.
Gay people are people.
Bisexual people are people.
Gender-nonconforming people are people.
You don’t have to approve of every aspect of someone to recognize the fact that they’re a person.
Christians are people.
Muslims are people.
Atheists are people.
Agnostics are people.
And everyone in-between. They’re people, too.
Welfare recipients are people.
Homeless people are people.
Refugees are people.
Immigrants—legal or otherwise—are people.
Society tries to de-humanize them, but we know the truth: They are people.
Foreign civilians are people.
Enemy soldiers are people.
Terrorists are people.
Dictators are people.
Nothing can change the fact that they are people.
Sex slaves are people.
Child laborers are people.
Victims of abuse are people.
All of the lost, forgotten, neglected, and ignored.
They’re people, just like you and me.
Every person is a person. Love them or hate them; agree with them or disagree with them; approve of them or not; it doesn’t matter. Every conversation, every decision, every opinion must begin with the basic premise that people are people. That is the only foundation for a just world. May we each do the hard work necessary to recognize and live out this fundamental truth in our lives.
People are people. Let’s treat them like it.