I was hanging out with a friend recently (let’s call him James) when we passed a cheapish department store. Glancing up at the neon display, he sneered, “Ugh, I would never shop there.” A familiar anger flushed my face, one that accompanies elitist comments from people I like. But then I remembered his “complex.” The problem is, James has a weird thing about money. More specifically, people with money. He was the least wealthy kid at a private school his entire life, and occasionally still tries to overcompensate by being more tone-deaf than the actual rich people I know. But it’s only occasional, and no matter how much it bothers me, is never enough reason to stop being friends. James is what you might call a “complicated person.” He says things he doesn’t mean. He harbors resentments. I know, deep down, he isn’t really a snob.
It made me think about complicated people in general and this recent scientific study, which argued that reading literary fiction increases your ability to “read minds” in real life. This in turn led me to think of a scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. The charming protagonist, (who’s basically Fitzgerald) is speaking with a woman he’s in love with. Because he considers her a better person, he asks her, “Am I painfully conceited?” She answers, “Well—no, you have tremendous vanity, but it’ll amuse the people who notice its preponderance.” She then goes on to say, “You’re really humble at heart. You sink to the third hell of depression when you think you’ve been slighted. In fact, you haven’t much self-respect.” He asks her how she can possibly know this, when she never lets him say a word. She responds, “Of course not—I can never judge a man while he’s talking.”
The last part is my favorite, in part because it’s just such a funny, “old-fashioned vixen” thing to say, but also because it challenges our definition of “reading” to include people’s faces. But the real reason I like this passage is because it reminds me of James, who, like Fitzgerald, is shrouded in layers of calculation and complex that can be deciphered with the right types of questions.
At the end of the day, I believe that all complex people – maybe all people – are like constellations: each idiosyncrasy is a “star” that determines what they love, what they fear, what illogically sets them off. For one person, the configuration might begin with something like: She’s always been ashamed of her weight. Knowing this, it will make sense that she gets suddenly quiet when you throw off your towels to dive in the lake. That’s one of her “core complexes” and her reaction is a direct result. Sometimes, the path is infinitely more crooked. She might snap at you about something completely random, and it will be because you complained that you’re fat (when, in fact, you’re not). This same person might have positive “complexes” like being the oldest child and thus a “providing type.” And yet it will manifest in so many ways, from being incredibly caring to yelling at you when you’re late.
I can’t tell you how to decode the people in your life, but I can give you the questions that tend to give me the most interesting answers:
1. What are they insecure about?
2. Who are they pushing back against?
3. When are they most alive?
4. How do they show their love?
While the first two are the most informative, the last two are the most important. Because if you can get someone when they’re most alive, you will know her at her best. The girl who wilts in a crowd could radiate energy when she’s playing music, or preparing a meal. And, while some show their love through “normal means” like…saying “I love you,” many of us are not so logical. Some are not affectionate in the least, but their relentless loyalty proves how much they care. No matter the person, if you can pinpoint the basic components of their “constellation,” then you can navigate the dark ocean of their heart. Even the most shadowy, guarded people are driven by a sort of algebra of feeling, a particular formula shrouded in clever disguise. It may be wrapped up well, but it’s there. You just have to watch, closely…not for their words, but the pauses that arise in between.