Other People’s Lives


Sermon #32 (2nd September 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

There’s a certain sort of conversation I find myself getting into from time to time – the sort you might describe as ‘benign gossip’ – hopefully this is something you do too: catching up on stories of mutual friends, their trials and tribulations, successes and surprises – catching up on how everyone we know is getting on in life and what they’re up to. Somewhere in the course of every chat like this – after a while spent dissecting some of the various complications, difficulties, and peculiarities our friends and acquaintances are inevitably facing – the testing circumstances that I couldn’t imagine having to deal with – there’ll be a lull in conversation, a quiet moment, before one us sighs, and says something like: ‘Well. Other People’s Lives.’ That’s where the title of today’s service came from. It’s almost a catchphrase.

And I should say, whenever I say this, I know, deep down, that my own wonky life probably looks just as complicated, difficult, or peculiar, from the outside, and that someone else, somewhere else, is probably engaging in such gossip about me too. That’s OK.

The theme of our services throughout the month of September is ‘Advantage and Disadvantage’. And today, in particular, we’re considering the hidden disadvantages in other people’s lives: the oft-unseen complications that people’s circumstances and life histories present them with; the burdens they carry, and the obstacles they have to clamber over, in order just to live.

Here’s the distilled message of today’s sermon – so you know where I’m going with all this: Most of the time, we don’t know the half of what’s really going on in other people’s lives. And yet we humans have a well-known (and built-in) tendency to judge one other – to judge other people’s actions, their behaviours, their life choices – based on the little we can see, from a distance, of what they’re dealing with… (and, as I’ve already hinted at, at any given moment, other people are more than likely judging us in much the same way). So today’s service is really just a reminder of something I suspect we already know, really: that we should ‘be kind, [because] everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle’, as the saying goes – everybody has hidden history, circumstances, or disadvantages – just a whole lot of ‘stuff’ going on, externally and internally – of which we are mostly unaware. And there’s a secondary message too: That there’s something to be said for being more open, more vocal, about our own hidden struggles and disadvantages, as such openness may ultimately help to create a climate where it is harder to remain oblivious about the difficulties that so many of us are having to contend with, day-to-day.

There are some lives – some ‘Other People’s Lives’ – that we do know quite a lot about, either through intimacy (because we have lived in close proximity and shared confidences),or through gossip (and I’m thinking again of the more positive sense of ‘gossip’ here, ‘benign gossip’, sharing non-judgemental, non-bitchy news of mutual friends and family, the sort of gossip which might ultimately help to mobilise practical help, care, and attention for the person in question, or at the very least compassionate concern and a prayer or two).

Additionally there are some lives – some ‘Other People’s Lives’ – that we can relatively easily imagine and empathise with, reasonably accurately too, because they’re quite like our own. Even if we aren’t close to someone, or we don’t know them at all personally, we might feel that if we share a lot of characteristics, if we have a similar background and current circumstances, then we can ‘fill in the gaps’ from our own experience, and understand their situation quite well. This can be a bit of a trap – we might make too many assumptions that they are ‘just like us’ and project some of our own ‘stuff’ onto them – but we also might not be too far off-track.

However… beyond these lives – these ‘Other People’s Lives’ – and life experiences that are relatively familiar and close to our own, there are many, many, lives and life experiences out there that are quite different to our own – really quite alien to us. There are people poorer than us – and richer. People who are sicker than us – and healthier. There are people who have had less access to education and information – and more. People whose gender, race, nationality, sexuality, family and relationship status, housing security, physical ability, neurological architecture, state of mental health – differs from our own. These differences will have shaped, sometimes limited, their experience and their opportunities. There are any number of different axes of advantage and disadvantage in life to consider. Some states are temporary, some permanent. Some we can hope to change, some we can’t. Some can’t be overcome by individuals, but could be overcome by collective, societal, change.

If we are not careful, not sensitive, not aware, we might find ourselves thinking of our own experience of life as the norm, the default, and not really internalising the fact that ‘Other People’s Lives’ – other people’s experience of advantage and disadvantage – may well be radically different from our own in a thousand different ways. But sometimes we talk to other people – and about them – as if we all started on a level playing field. If we’re doing alright in life, and they’re not, it doesn’t mean we’re ‘doing life right’ and they’re ‘doing life wrong’. We’re all just doing what we can with what we’ve been given. But it can sometimes be difficult to get out of our own head, our own perspective, and seriously engage with what it’s like to be someone else, to walk in their shoes. There’s a temptation to interpret other people’s actions, behaviour, and choices – and to judge them – without fully appreciating the particular circumstances they face.

There’s an analogy I like – it’s a bit of an oversimplification, of course, but there’s something in it – the analogy pictures life as a video game – and we are all playing the same game – but some people (the ones with most luck and privilege) are fated to play it on the easiest setting without even knowing it – while others have got lumbered with the hardest difficulty setting (and might be stuck on level 1 for ages whilst their friends on the easier setting are racing away). It can be tempting for the lucky people on the easy setting to judge everyone else harshly and think ‘well, why are they all so rubbish at this game, when it’s so easy?! I’m doing alright.’

This is the sort of attitude that leads to people who are unaware of their relative advantage, or who are conveniently in denial of it – including a lot of politicians, sadly – looking down on disadvantaged people and saying stuff like ‘you’ve just got to work hard and make sacrifices’ (at the same time as pulling support from programmes intended to help level the playing field). People who’ve done well for themselves in life may well have worked hard… but once you’ve ‘made it’ there’s a risk of taking an ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude – convincing yourself that you have earned your success and then ‘pulling up the ladder’ so others find it harder to follow – dividing the world into the deserving and undeserving (and ignoring the part that luck has played).

Now, none of this is to say the people who are (relatively) advantaged are ‘baddies’ – or that those who are (relatively) disadvantaged are ‘goodies’ – we’re all a bit of a mixed bag, of course. But it would be wise, and just, to pay attention to the realities of Other People’s Lives – and our own – and remember that our lot in life, and theirs, is largely due to chance. Our circumstances could change in an instant. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.

There’s a well-known psychological effect called ‘actor-observer asymmetry’ (or sometimes ‘actor-observer bias’ – some of the specifics details have been disputed a bit over the years). My non-expert understanding of this effect is that we humans typically tend to judge other people more harshly, if they screw up in some way, or are unsuccessful, than we would judge ourselves. If we make a mistake, or underachieve, or do something we’re not especially proud of, we tend to take into account any mitigating circumstances, and make generous allowances for ourselves. But if someone else makes a mistake or underachieves, we’re more likely to tell ourselves it is because of a failing in their character or a lack of effort. This seems to be a default human tendency that we need to work at overcoming. We are likely to treat ourselves as real people, in all our fullness, nuance, and complexity, whilst treating other people as one-dimensional caricatures. I suppose it brings us back to the question posed in our reading earlier: are other people really real to us (or just ‘pretend’)?

There’s a young woman I know – a very impressive young woman – let’s call her Chloë. Chloë is just setting out in her career as a journalist, and she’s been very active of late in a successful and high-profile political campaign, over an important social justice issue. That’s what you see of her life, on the surface. The hard work and the achievements. He writing is great, her values are laudable, and she’s out there doing good in the world. In truth, I don’t know her very well just yet, but we’re Facebook friends and so I do get a little window into her life through social media. Just a few days ago she posted something online about the realities of her life and it chimed so neatly with what I was trying to say today, about hidden disadvantages in Other People’s Lives, that I asked her permission to share an excerpt. It’s quite a long piece, a few minutes, but I thought it would be helpful for us to focus on just one story, one real person, and her struggle, her disadvantages. Here’s what Chloë wrote:

‘The majority of British journalists are middle and upper class, went to private school and Oxbridge. The National Union of Journalists has found this out repeatedly in research. I’m part of the meagre 3% of journalists in this country who grew up in a working class [or] “unskilled” family. When people talk about class and social mobility, it is painted in very positive terms. I have a professional job and an income that is more than my family income growing up… This especially feels strange… shifting class has been great, but also one of the most psychologically difficult things in my life. You are left not fully belonging to the class you were born into nor the one you enter. You learn to try and hide certain parts of yourself, in both camps. And… the path for me has not been plain sailing or linear. While struggling massively with university, and feeling stupid too, I was diagnosed with learning difficulties just before I turned 22. I was poor, and this had an impact on my mental health. It took two years to get a journalism job, which may not seem that long, but my middle class and upper class peers tend to quite easily get such a job straight out of university. There’s people being promoted who are the same age as me, whilst I am at trainee level. In those two years I was working to live, in poorly paid and [poorly] respected jobs, and these peers I’m pretty sure never had to do that, or rely on benefits either. And the thing that goes to the heart of the class divide, I think, is confidence… I was so close to fully giving up on journalism this year. Once I started at University, I felt isolated by being the only Northern Irish person… and being working class Northern Irish at that; living outside my home country for the first time; being broke; being mentally unwell; getting my diagnosis [of learning difficulties]. I felt overwhelmed with a sense of not being good enough. That I would not fit in this industry. That I had been naïve to think hard work would be enough. It wasn’t [until] a friend recommended I apply for the job I have now that I considered that I might be good enough, [and] I should try, as I was on the dole and had nothing to lose. I’m lucky, and I’m grateful especially for my postgrad scholarship… But there’s a lot of privileged people in British journalism who are in denial of being so, and it feels strange, like I’m living in a different version of reality.’

That’s what Chloë wrote. An insight into the circumstances of just one ‘Other Person’s Life’. She names some of her struggles – the ways in which she is disadvantaged due to her class, her relative poverty, the place she comes from, her mental health, and learning difficulties – and of course she does also acknowledge some advantages, some lucky breaks, as well. She did get into University, unlike others from a similar background, and she got a scholarship. A combination of hard work and good luck has meant she has at least got one foot on the ladder now, even if she hasn’t had it as easy as many of her colleagues, so far.

I wanted to share Chloë’s story, partly as an illustration of how much can be going on beneath the surface of another person’s life without our knowing, and partly to make another point (which might seem obvious, but bear with me): we only really start to understand what Other People’s Lives are like if they are willing to tell us about them and we are willing to listen.

So let us speak more freely about the messy realities of our own lives. In doing so, maybe we can each contribute to building a culture where ‘what it’s really like for us’ is something it’s truly OK to talk about: by being open, authentic, even vulnerable; by revealing something of the various complications, difficulties, and peculiarities we face; naming the disadvantages we struggle to overcome, and the advantages that lift us up, too.

In bringing these hidden parts of our life to light we may encourage others to do likewise. And when other people open up to tell us about the circumstances of their lives, in turn, may we be ready to listen with curiosity and kindness, and to see them as fully real.

Let us truly look upon Other People’s Lives – and our own – with open eyes, and regard each other in a spirit of compassion, solidarity, and love. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: