Fool Me Twice

One of my all-time favorite quotes, one that I feel contains so much wisdom that it alone will probably prevent 95% of the problems you’ll face in life if you absorb in its fullness, is from Maya Angelou:

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

There is a way to navigate life that can seem strange, but I believe in it fully. The technique involves understanding that you, yes you, are fundamentally different from every other human on Earth in a very important way. You live your life in first person. You have control over, and moral responsibility for, your own actions. You cannot control or own anyone else’s. That means you aren’t the same – from your perspective.

That’s the important part: perspective. See, far too many people seem to view the world as if they were in third person. As if they were observing every person from outside the system. When you look at the world that way, you think that moral rules should apply to everyone, including yourself, equally.

I don’t view the world like that at all. I hold myself to incredibly different (and to be clear, higher) standards than I would ever expect from others. Because expectations are only rational when you can influence the outcome. I can control my own actions; I can improve them, adjust them in the future if a current course of action yields bad results. I cannot make that happen in others, so I hold no expectations about others’ behavior. I sometimes try to predict it, but I never count on it.

So, a little geeky tangent: in a lot of video games where you interact with a variety of characters, there’s a term “NPC.” That acronym stands for “non-player character,” and it’s the term for every character that exists only as code in the game; characters not controlled by a “player,” i.e. you. NPCs have pre-coded behaviors that are bound by the rules and script of the game. They cannot deviate from those behaviors, obviously. If a security guard is programmed to attack you if you try to rob the bank, the guard will do that even if you try to give him a million dollars not to, because the game’s code and the character’s script have no ability to deviate from the pre-written actions.

From your point of view, you should think of every other person on Earth as an NPC. In reality, every person is a rich, complex, moral actor with agency and ethical responsibility. But all of those terms describe your relationship with yourself, which means that from your perspective, only you are those things. Everyone else is a pre-programmed robot who will never change, never do anything different. And they certainly won’t change in the way you want, because you want them to! Expecting otherwise is putting your life in the hands of the scorpion.

The old adage of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” is incredibly accurate. You do not want to hear this, but if someone ever lets you down in the same way twice, it is 100% your fault. If you ask a friend to cook dinner and they produce an inedible, toxic mess – well, chalk it up to experience, thank them for the effort, and go out for pizza. But if you ask them again – that’s on you. That doesn’t mean you should never forgive or give second chances, but it does mean that the results are wholly owned by you, and you can’t be mad at them if it’s gross, and you should have a backup plan to order pizza. It definitely means you shouldn’t ask that friend to cook if you’re in a bind and will have no means of getting a backup meal. It means forgive… with a safety net.

This also – and pretty please, read this next part deeply, because it’s very important – this also doesn’t mean that other people aren’t important. It doesn’t mean you can discount them, dismiss them, devalue them. People are wonderful. It just means that trying to navigate life as if everyone will take everything you don’t like and deeply internalize it in order to make drastic changes that result in a better outcome for you specifically in the future is… well, fool me once. People are their own people. They live their own lives. Huge, dramatic shifts in the core ethical foundation and daily behaviors of a person are rarer than blue moons. Love people for who they are, but don’t expect them to be anything else.

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