“Inside every person is a universe”

“Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person.  Which is horrifying.” – Elizabeth Strout

I came across this quote from Elizabeth Strout in an interview she did with Time Magazine.  I had never heard of her before, nor read the book she is most well-known for, Olive Kitteridge, but the image this quote paints has stuck with me.

It stuck with me so much that three days after I finished that edition of Time Magazine and recycled it, I fished out the magazine from the recycling box to take a photo of the quote, in case the interview was not published online.

Strout has beautifully captured how deep individuality runs in each person by comparing it to an entire universe.  Her quote implies that we’re all distinct persons: we are all universes that are totally different from one person to the next, so (unfortunately and horrifyingly enough) we can never fully comprehend each other. 

This quote intersects with another quote and a story for me.  If all people are total universes on their own, it means there’s a lot we can learn a lot from each other.

My Chinese textbook introduced this proverb: “三人行,必有我师”.  If you translate it along more literal lines, it means, “When three people walk together, my teacher must be there.”  The essential gist of it is that you can always learn something from the people around you.  Somebody nearby will always be able to teach you something.

A recent interaction drew the connections between Strout’s quote and the Chinese proverb.  A classmate asked my professor a question that was smack dab in my region of interest, East Asia.  I thought I could suggest some further reading for her as I had taken a course abroad that was closely connected to her question, so I approached her after class to extend this offer.

After I introduced myself awkwardly, I quickly learned after exchanging a few words that she was already very knowledgeable about the region.  The conversation rapidly deviated from what I had originally approached her for (i.e., to share my knowledge), to her telling me about herself, her research interests, and her research findings.  I was the one learning from that conversation.  And it was so cool.

In sum, this interaction was a real-life reminder for me about the awesome depth each person has within, and to be humble enough to recognize it and learn from it.

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