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“My dear Frodo!” exclaimed Gandalf. “Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.”

– Gandalf, Lord of the Rings,

There are hobbits in my world.

Several times I have been surprised by what my friends can do. They excel at things I thought were way beyond their comfort zone, or at subjects outside their skillset. My peace-loving sister once beat me at mock argument. I never saw that coming.

It’s natural that we try to understand what our friends like and what they are good at. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is something wrong with making that understanding concrete. In fact, there’s something arrogant about thinking “I know you and you would never do that” or “you wouldn’t be good at that”. There’s something arrogant about the idea that we can fully comprehend the secrets of another human being.

The trick is to frame these evaluations in terms of probability. “That doesn’t sound like something Michael would enjoy” does not rule it out. “I don’t think Eve is very good at this” does not assume that I know Eve as well or better than she knows herself. Using probability words leaves the door open (at least in our own thinking) for our friend to be who they think they are, not who we think they are.

Why does this matter, if they are free to do whatever they want? Sure, unless I’m in a position of authority, Eve does not have to listen to my evaluation of her skillset. But it does affect our relationship. If I assume things about what other people are capable of, it will come out. Either in my words or tone or body language, or something else, I will let it slip that I have a limiting, essentially paternalistic appreciation of them as people. And that’s bad.

That’s why my thinking needs to allow for the possibility that people can “surprise me at a pinch.”

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