A Person is an Inexhaustible “World”

Paul Tournier, M.D.

True, Not Exhaustive, Knowledge of the Human Person

Recently, one of my neighbors said to me, “I am still trying to figure you out.” How boring, how predictable, is a world in which we can “figure out” others. In such a world, the wonder and mystery of the human person is all but lost.

Ask couples who have been married, say, 30 or more years, “Have you figured out each other?” Many of them will probably say, “We have not!” The reason is that as they grow older, their relationship becomes dynamic, not static; in other words, they are ever-discovering new things about each other. That is what keeps their mutual love growing and prevents them from becoming bored with each other.

Understanding, Not Demystifying, a Person

Seeking to understand a human being is different from trying to figure out him or her. To understand is to add to one’s knowledge and experience of another human, helping one to know him or her better and, thus, appreciate, even love, him or her as a person.

However, to figure out a person is to demystify him or her, stripping him or her of all the mysterious facets of his or her humanity. It is, in effect, placing him or her in the neat, little rational “box” of someone else’s mind. No, the utter complexity of one person cannot be contained in another person’s mind. There are inexhaustible depths to a person’s being. They are unfathomable, which literally means “immeasurable.”

The Ever-Expanding Territories of a Person

According to Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician, there are ever-new and expanding territories of exploration of another person. Tournier writes,

[T]he person is a whole vast domain, a country. We enter it, constantly discovering new prospects as we go. But it is too vast and complex, too restlessly alive, for us ever to know and comprehend it fully.”1

A person’s life, Tournier says, is a “think and limitless forest.”2 A person, then, is a marvelously complex subject or, in Tournier’s words, a “tangle of experiences, impressions, attitudes and appearances, so many that one could never enumerate them all.”3

A human being is not shallow but deep, profound, like an ocean. That is why one may understand many things about another, but never figure out him or her. Think about the mystery of the human person this way: If I can’t figure out how to get around Philadelphia, which is a place, an object, an extended thing, then how much more difficult is it to figure out a person, the greatest of all creatures in the world!


  1. Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1957; Perennial Library, 1973), p. 135.
  2. Ibid., p. 128.
  3. Ibid.