I’ve spent a lot of my time wondering why people need other people. There is this common idea that many of us often feel as though we function at our truest potential and at our “best” when we are around those in our lives that “bring out the best in us.” I believe this phrase embodies a concept that we take for granted; how many of us could actually articulate the reasons that good people in our lives make us better people? We could say they inspire us. We could say they support us in both good and bad times. My question is, however, why exactly do we need these other people, as opposed to simply benefitting from their presence? What about them is necessary for us, and not simply desired?
It is the “why,” not the “what,” that will be analyzed in subsequent paragraphs. I will take to be true that the people we invest in “bring out the best in us,” and explore why this is so. I will attempt to understand why other people are a necessary condition for our own personhood, as opposed to a preferable (albeit optional) condition.
Chuck Palahniuk stated the following: “Nothing about me is original. I am the combination of every person I have ever met.” While I once had a friend tell me that I was sad for believing in this quote, there is much truth to be drawn from its simplicity. My friend thought that I took the quote to mean that the people around me, not I, had control over the person that I was and ultimately became. His interpretation was that “The influence of others is so strong that I cannot help but be what they want me or influence me to be.” My interpretation was, and is, much different. Instead of ascribing the development of my own personhood to others, I took it to mean that the people in my life facilitated the development of my decision-making, interactions, and beliefs about the world that ultimately formed the frame of the person I am. I am not created, maintained, nor developed in a vacuum, devoid of choices and interactions with the world around me. I develop because the world around me, and the people in that world, constantly change, and I am a part of that change. I am shaped by my actions, and my actions arise from my surroundings—surroundings full of other people. I cannot choose to exhibit kindness or generosity to another being if that being does not exist; it is through our environment that the options for our choices arise.
As agents, we form our own beliefs, make our own choices, and ultimately are the captains of our own lives. While I stated that we do not live in nor develop inside of a vacuum, often it feels that we do—that we are somehow independent of and separate from the people around us. In spite of the fact that often others often do not feel “necessary” to us, we choose others—in partners, in friends, in careers—over and over again, to be a part of us. We choose to place ourselves in situations and circumstances where choices and captain-ing do not just involve ourselves, but those people. These decisions and these circumstances are based upon our fears, hopes, doubts, and dreams—all of which are embedded in an actual, value-laden world full of other people who also have fears, hopes, doubts and dreams.
All of the actions, interactions, and mindsets that we choose ultimately compose the “type” of people that we are—we are all unfinished beings situated within an unfinished reality. The point is that the human mind and body are not points on a spectrum of development; they are the spectrum. Every minute of every day we are faced with a number of decisions to make, within environments and situations that are foreign to us. While we may recognize the characters that inhabit our decision-making arena, the arena itself never looks the same one day to the next. To assume that we make decisions as static agents in a static environment is to deny the most beautiful thing about personhood—hope and potential.
Decisions can be made by ourselves, for ourselves, and in a way that explicitly and exclusively involves ourselves, but they can never be made without context. I am always limited by my surroundings, in the same way that I am afforded numerous opportunities by my surroundings. I
cannot make decisions grounded in things that do not exist, nor in things that I do not know to be true. The “things” that our context is composed of are created by and for other people. If I believe in a certain school of thought, and act upon those beliefs, my decision was grounded in the work of another person. While it felt as though I was acting upon my own beliefs, these beliefs were not formed out of thin air, but from the world composed of those that came before, with, and after me. If I decide to become a teacher, it is only because there are students to be taught. This decision would not be possible without the context of other people.
We need other people because they form the surroundings that influence how, when, and why we act, and those actions orchestrate our development as human beings.
But why do those people often necessitate the feeling that the “best” of us is elicited as a direct result of their presence?
The nature of someone or something bringing out the best in us is characterized by the idea that there is always room to grow, and to be better for ourselves and for others. When others bring out the best in us, the reality in which our decisions are grounded is meaningful. Meaning is derived from value—if I value something (place a significant amount of importance on that thing, idea or person), then it means something (plays a role in my personal development) to me. For example, if I value honesty, then I will act in accordance to ways that allow me to exhibit or experience honesty. It is important to me, so I allow it to aid in governing my actions.
When we exhibit ideal qualities that were called forth by a situation or circumstance that was or is made of the things and people we value, we feel as though we are functioning at our best. When I act like the person I want to be, in a context or situation composed of people I value, then those people can be said to have “brought out the best” in me. As a result of their presence and/or actions, I acted/made decisions in an ideal way. Some of us have friends whose conversations bring out the best and most intellectual ideas out of the recesses of our minds. Some of us have people whose selflessness inspires a rare selflessness within ourselves. It is because of these people and their traits—the same ones that we are forever attempting to “work on”—that we are able to find it within ourselves to improve. We choose to be better because those that we value have structured the environment in which we make our choices—to be intellectual, to be selfless, or to simply be better.
The idea that others are necessary to bring out the best in us is not grounded in a hopelessly romantic notion of human camaraderie, fellowship, or even inspiration. Rather, its basis is simple and hopeful. It is that the people around us naturally and unavoidable shape the environment from which we make our choices. They govern which choices are available to us, and which are not. When those people shape it in such a way that one choice we have is to be better people than before, we cannot help but succumb to the inevitable beauty that unfolds.
Photo courtesy of Mahmood Salam, Flickr Creative Commons