When you try to empathize with another person, you realize that from your perspective, they are always the one in trouble or suffering.
A frequent occurrence in life is seeing people come and go. Some poignant realities of living a human life are that you’re the only one who’s there from start to finish, and that you’ll never know everything about anyone.
Life is a story where the protagonist, or “you,” is surrounded by other people who are mostly minor characters but some of whom play a major role in the story. You never get to know their thoughts or choose their actions, and you only ever see them onscreen as they do things and say things.
Most of the time, no matter how important their role in the story, these other people are just off-screen somewhere in the world doing whatever it is that they do.
The author had a surreal moment in which they realized that at that moment, as they were eating dinner with one of their favorite friends, they were the other person.
As I was walking home, I realized that I’m always off-screen in her story, and that I am a first-person protagonist only in my own life.
Of course this is true for you too. You are, by far, the Other Person in the world. There’s only one person to whom you are a first-person Protagonist – to everyone else you are always the other person in the elevator, booth, bed, car, parking garage.
There is a clear difference between acknowledging this basic idea that you are someone else to other people, and seeing yourself as the Other Person you constantly are – someone who’s sometimes physically present with a given Protagonist but usually not, whose inner world is invisible and only theoretical, who’s out of sight and out of mind most of the time, but might appear at the doorway, or in a car coming up the road. All Other People are exactly this sort of “visitor from outside”; all of us are Other People on some level.
Recognizing our status as a full-time Other Person can help us be more humble and more aware of the effect we have on others.
When it comes to being an Other Person, remember that your role is that of Mostly-Not-There Other Person. This will help you be a better person, no matter the situation.
It’s easy to take on the role of an Other Person when short interactions are involved, so it usually isn’t a big task. You can easily be more patient when you need help, and consciously tone down your frantic energy. You can also try to be less intent on getting your coffee made as quickly as you expect, and more intent on being a pleasant customer.
When you’re close to someone, it’s helpful to remember the qualities they love in you, and try embodying a bit of that for them right now. These efforts are short-term and often only last for a single moment, but they really matter to the person receiving them. This change can have a significant impact on who you are as an Other Person
Yes, it’s possible to become a better protagonist, and this is something that many people struggle with. However, being a better protagonist can be achieved by focusing on your responsibilities as the protagonist and improving upon the problems that are specific to your story.
There is no one right way to do this, so it will require some trial and error on your part.
As a protagonist, you’re constantly faced with the big questions about life – such as “What does it mean to be human?” and “How can I become a good person?”, among others. These are tough queries that have no definitive answers, which makes them all the more daunting.
Although we are focused on being the best Protagonists in our respective inner stories, others see only how we’re doing in our other, more public roles. If you think about what people are admired and remembered for, it’s always for their kind of Other Person they were.