Philip Roth on Getting People Wrong

This week, I had a deep, liberating, and humbling conversation with someone whose intentions I got completely wrong. The signals, signs, body language: I’ve misread everything.

And so: I am reminded of this quote from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, on getting people wrong. It’s one of my all-time favorite quotes:

You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.

So, thank you, Mr. Roth for this reminder. I am wrong because I am alive. I am alive, and so I’m wrong.

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