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"One Must Understand All"


The first edition cover of "The Beautiful and Damned".

"One must understand all—else one must take all for granted." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned the summer before I turned eighteen, and fell head over heels for it. It wasn't my first Fitzgerald novel — like almost every high school student in the country, I'd been forced to read The Great Gatsby—but it quickly became one of my favorite novels. It's full of philosophical witticisms and intriguing characters, whom you don't really like but are still somehow invested in. It's a poignant look at how far people will go to get what they want, and raises questions on whether it's worth it if you end up losing yourself on the path to your desires.

But, before everything gets too depressing, Fitzgerald tosses in this gem: "One must understand all—else one must take all for granted." It's almost a throwaway line, dropped in the middle of a paragraph focused on the main character, Anthony's, admiration of his friend Maury. It seems to come out of nowhere, to be unattached to any of its surrounding sentences, and yet there it is.

I remember going over that line again and again when I first read it, because I wanted to memorize it, wanted to carve it into my brain. It seemed to describe everything I wanted for myself, my whole philosophy, in just one sentence. It was incredible, like F. Scott Fitzgerald had put that line there solely because he knew that one day I'd read it. Immediately, I knew I wanted it on me, permanently.

I've known I wanted tattoos since my parents got theirs, when I was maybe six or seven years old. As I approached my eighteenth birthday, I had an idea for my first, but was way more sold on the placement—my upper thigh—than the line I'd chosen (it was originally going to say, "matter of fact, it's all dark," which is the last line of the last song on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon album). Reading The Beautiful and Damned just a few months before I could get my first tattoo was serendipitous—it was exactly what I was looking for, and at just the right time.

The meaning of my tattoo has developed over time; where it once described my personal pursuit of knowledge (while also referencing one of my favorite authors), it now symbolizes a more emotional sense of "understanding" to me: understanding the world around me, the people I interact with, and my place in all of it. This is one of the most divisive eras the world has experienced in a long time, and so much of that division comes from a lack of empathy. Humans have always grouped ourselves into “us” and “them” categories, based on race, gender, belief systems, and just about anything we can come up with. Instead of embracing our differences and using them to grow individually and as a world community, we use them to justify violence, oppression, and hatred. One of the telltale signs of intolerance has always been willful ignorance: we refuse to listen to the “other side,” instead huddling with like-minded people who only confirm the idea that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. (In psychology, that's called "group polarization.")

Understanding each other, actively listening to the what and why and how of others, is how we cultivate ourselves into being meaningful, kind, empathetic people, people who can change the world. Humankind does not and will never fit into one box, or even two or three. Our similarities may number more than our differences, but it is our differences that allow us to be successful. To understand and embrace that is our best hope. 

Of course, one can never understand all—but there's far less harm in trying than in not.

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