Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Your Story

Time-Life "Voyage Through The Universe"
Last night I was packing up some books—a bunch of 80s era books on stars, planets, and cosmology—that I haven’t looked at since I was a kid. I pondered giving them all to Good Will, but something nagged me. It took a moment to pin the thought down, but it was essentially: “You’re the kind of person that would own these books, so you better keep them.”

Really? What an odd thought. Who was I trying to impress with my (probably out-of-date) books on stars and planets, if not myself? If I was the kind of person who would own such books, you’d have thought I would have pulled one down to peruse during the last decade. Sure, in a pre-web era, I would have, but knowledge isn’t confined to dead trees any more, and . . . Well, the books ended up in the Good Will box.

That incident and a few other recent events made me realize how much a victim to our sense of “what other people think” many of us are. Have you ever wondered explicitly (or vaguely), “What will people think?” as you pondered doing, saying, trying, or arranging something different? Did the answer to that question influence your action in some way? If you’re a human being, then of course the answer is yes.

But just who are these people we’re so concerned with?

From an early age we’re taught what’s right and wrong. But for every one of society’s codified rules, there are a dozen unspoken guidelines that insinuate themselves into our gray matter. Society teaches us that it’s “right” to comb our hair, to buy a house, to get a 9-5 job, to get married, to have kids, and so on and on . . .

And at some point, we internalize “what people think” into ourselves, so that “society” becomes one more tiny voice in the chorus of personality fragments that make up each of us.

This can be slightly insidious if we don't recognize it, because our sense of ourselves, our very consciousness and self-awareness, is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Or so some people who study language’s effect on the brain believe. If true, then it follows that we not only want to create a story that's pleasing to ourselves, but one that's pleasing to others too. But others do not . . . How can I say this?

Let me put it baldly. For the most part, unless you’re breaking a law or a heart, other people don’t care.

Oh sure, they care, but not to the degree you might think they do. Other people are not you. And unless your particular decision directly affects someone, people in general don’t have to live with (or without) the decisions you make. And trust me, after their initial reaction, they won't give your particular decision hardly another thought until the next time they see you. They’re living their own lives, wrapped up in their own stories they’re telling themselves. As they should be!

Not all the decisions we make are as ultimately unimportant as whether we keep some dusty old books. But the point remains: Make decisions for yourself, not for the sake of what you believe “society” or some constructed version of yourself would have you do.

Also, if you’re looking for some Time-Life books on stars and planets, I know where you can get some cheap.


Anonymous said...

I so totally agree!

E. Foley said...

For the most part, unless you’re breaking a law or a heart, other people don’t care.

So true. We have these ideas that we should please everyone or not grow in new directions because it might upset the people who already "know" us. Most of these notions are totally limiting and not at all worth it.

Unknown said...

The most interesting aspect of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves is how it changes and at the same time manages to remain the same. The reason it changes is, it needs to adapt to the reality that everything and everybody is changing all the time. it remains the same because we need it to remind ourselves of who we are. the corollary of this is, there's nothing wrong with telling ourselves the story, so long as we remember that it is what we choose to identify with as ourselves. Thank you for that, Bruce. My admiration for you just grew up by a bunch of notches, Mathter. I see that great minds think alike. :D

Nina said...

Good article! It's a microcosm of your point, but I often think about this when someone is worried about their clothing choices. 99% of the time, nobody even notices!

I would add to breaking a law and a heart, quitting a job and/or firing someone! :)

Jerry (DreadGazebo) said...

Haha, this is all so sad but true. A lot of things are trivial to others, even to ourselves at times. I'm not going to stop combing my hair though, that is if I did comb my hair.

Jonathan Tweet said...

The brain works according to fuzzy logic, in which contradictory algorithms compete for operating space. When you say that other people generally don't care, I accept that as a good and useful algorithm. But the algorithm that people do care is also a good and useful one. The trick is to tune the two algorithms so that they balance out right.

The natural state of affairs is for humans to live among loved ones who do care, but we're pretty far from that lifestyle, and even our most successful hunter-gatherer ancestors never gave us the genetic wherewithal to deal successfully with the issue of hoarding books that used to be valuable to us.

On the particular topic, you're right not to hoard. It's a lesson that I happen to be avoiding.

Jonathan Tweet said...

More generally: when the time comes to change, don't let anything stop you.

GameDaddy said...

I prefer not to get rid of books. Basically, If I'm going to end up giving them away or throwing them out ...they are not worth reading (or buying) in the first place.

I think that goes hand-in-hand with my preference to being able to open a book and look at it, to decide if it's worth finishing or not. If it's worth finishing, or if it is interesting, I'll buy it, and find a place for it on my shelves. Where it will stay, unless a friend who stops by ends up borrowing it.