For as long as I’ve known about it, I’ve been a fan of the idea that “the truth resists simplicity,” as John Green once eloquently put it. It’s not just a clever phrase because, as his brother Hank observed, it’s a simple truth about the rarity of simple truths, but also because many of society’s evils can be traced back to an ignorance of the fact that all simplicity is constructed, that there’s no entity in this universe with just one essential trait. Our species has an unshakable habit of essentializing the other — whether they differ from us socially or biologically — and we’re all guilty of it. Simplifications are especially harmful when directed toward living beings, but at the end of the day our brains know no way around them.
Maybe that’s why some truths will always retain that hard-hitting quality we encounter in lines from Shakespeare, Yeats, and the rest of the bunch: a sentiment so profoundly simple that it lets us appreciate the poet’s literary merit on a gut level. I was hit pretty hard recently when I came across a maxim, first penned in the 17th century by renowned wisdom-dropping Frenchman François de La Rochefoucauld, that runs as follows:
The most difficult undertaking in friendship is not showing our faults to our friend, but making him see his own.
Aphorisms serve as a shining example of omnipresent complexity, in that their brevity doesn’t diminish their depth and significance; it rather seems to amplify them. That’s because I can impose my own interpretations on these pithy statements and still feel a deep kinship with their author, across centuries and geography of whatever magnitude. And honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this one.
What have my friendships taught me about myself? For one, they’ve revealed that I’m freakishly reluctant when it comes to showing support and affection for someone I care about, to the extent that I virtually freeze in moments of crisis. I learned that lesson in my last year of high school, though my classmate didn’t make me see my own fault at all; it just unravelled naturally. She was in distress, clinging (unsuccessfully) to that last shred of composure — and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but watch. I went through that scenario several times, just barely mustering the courage to place a hand on her shoulder. In those moments I instantly became aware of the weight I was exerting on her body and worried that my response was coming off as clichéd and patronizing, a phony stand-in for genuine consolation. Words only came tentatively; they fell short of calming her in their awkward phrasing and doubtful tone.
Faced with your own flaws, it can be difficult to separate the guilt you feel from the victim you harmed. If you inflict some sort of damage on a person close to you (or fail to ease their pain, as I did), you may grow insecure about the shortcomings that got you into this mess. I make sense of this insecurity by imagining that this is just my subconscious trying to apologize. That way, I can stay mindful of ways to grow from the shame.
If you’re in a situation like I was, let me give you some advice: be careful that your insecurities don’t turn on you. The moment you start to blame your friend for making you feel small when your own flaws were laid bare — that’s a line you can’t un-cross. Even worse, it’s yet another surrender to a false simplicity. Personally, I never got to that stage with my friend. I’ve only ever been on the receiving end of such a dynamic (because I made someone else painfully aware of their flaws, and repeatedly so), which means I don’t know how to evade that cycle. But I can assure you there’s nothing to be gained from it. If you allow yourself to turn a friend into the embodiment of your shame, neither of you will be left unscathed. How’s that for a simple truth?