Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Think about what being you entails. Really think about it.

I don't think most of us properly appreciate how incredibly intense an experience selfhood is.

I mean, you're you 24 hours a day. You can't get away from yourself. You know what you're thinking ALL THE TIME. You can read your own mind, and you can't turn it off. You know about all of your most embarrassing moments and all your secrets, and you have to deal with them even if no one else knows about them. However it feels to live inside your body, you feel that way ALL THE TIME. No one else feels it--EVER--but you always do. Even if you try artificial ways to simulate turning it off, like getting really drunk, those experiences become part of you and inform your experience of being you too. Even if you're partial to your mind over your body, or your body over your mind, the less favored one still affects you subconsciously every single moment. It never stops, until you die. Your life is an unrelenting onslaught of yourself-ness.

Please take a moment to think about how different this is from our relationships with other people.

Even if we love someone, even if we have a best friend, a parent, a child, really the best we can do is guess at what being them is like. Even if they tell us, in intimate detail, that's nothing compared to experiencing it, nonstop, every second for your entire life.

This explains a number of things.

1. It explains why everyone thinks the world revolves around themselves. Since being yourself is ALWAYS a deeply intense experience, and has been from the moment you were born, you don't tend to think about it that way most of the time. You take it for granted. Which can lead to the unconscious belief that the world should always cater to your desires. That in a conflict, the other person is always wrong. That anything that seems weird to you IS weird.

But when you stop to think about how much more deeply you experience your own life than anyone else's, you might realize, huh, I guess my viewpoint must be kind of skewed. Imagine having to live inside THAT person's body/brain 24/7 for my whole life. Now their point of view might not seem so strange.

2. It explains why some people seem so glamorous and desirable. Of COURSE someone else is always gonna be more mysterious to you than you are to yourself. Think about everything that's happened to you just since this morning when you got up. You've already had a million thoughts and made decisions and felt good about some things and bad about others. By contrast, that enigmatic acquaintance across the way has had a morning that's virtually opaque to you. But it only seems that way to you. To her, it's anything but.

3. It explains why some people seem totally inconsequential. The last time you walked down a city street, assuming you've ever done that (and of course I assume you have, since I have), you walked past a whole bunch of people. Each one of them, you only saw for a split second. But each one of them has to be themselves every moment for their entire life. Their life affects them soooo much more than it affects you. That girl who walked by wearing the ugly jeans, who you thought, "Ew, those jeans are ugly"? She has to wear them ALL DAY. She knows what it's like to feel them on her body and see them every time she looks down. She's either glad or sorry that she purchased them and probably knows which. Every time she gets up in the morning and has to decide what to wear, those jeans are one of the options. She knows the score about those jeans, and you really don't. Which sort of puts your rejection of them into perspective.

It's like, meanwhile you're walking along, engaging in the deeply intense experience of you-ness, and other people just can't compare. Of course, each one of them is doing the same thing, which is why none of you have very much regard for one another, except out of politeness.

4. It explains why you should trust yourself more and other people less. I recently turned 39 (!)  , which seems kind of unbelievable to me, and in contemplating this I was thinking about what I'd say if anyone asked me what the most important lessons I've learned in my 30s were. "That I should trust myself more and other people less" was the first one that came to mind. And this is really rooted in what I'm talking about here, about how you know your own experience so much better than anyone else ever can, even the people who know us best. We are constantly searching outside ourselves for advice, validation, categories that we can fit into, studies that show people react in certain ways to certain things, methods that worked for other people that might work for us. But a method has a better chance of working for us if we don't take it whole cloth, if we just take the parts that are useful and combine them with other stuff and custom-retrofit the whole thing to our exact life and experience, which we know intimately.

Have you ever tried to tell someone about yourself and they didn't understand? That's probably because it's impossible for them to REALLY understand. For them to understand, they'd have to BE you, because that's the only way to get as comprehensive an understanding as you have. I think the closest you can get is a sort of simulacrum of understanding, which itself can be exciting because it's so much more than what usually happens, but even that, you shouldn't get too too excited about. You certainly shouldn't go pinning your hopes and dreams on it. And I'm not even talking about the truly sleazy people who out-and-out PRETEND to understand us so we'll sign our hearts and minds over to them. Certainly watch out for them. (This is definitely a case of "too good to be true.") But even someone who honestly thinks they understand? Doesn't--not as well as you yourself do.

But at the same time, you should surround yourself with people who do sort of understand you. Don't isolate yourself or reject potential partners because they don't completely 100% get it--you'll never find anyone who does. There is this meme (is it a meme?) going around that you should never "settle," and a lot of us would think it was "settling" to stay with someone who doesn't 100% get it. But no one ever will, so you might as well stay with a partner you love who shares your basic values and gets most of the important, big stuff. It's OKAY for them to get it only that much. It's physically impossible to have the other.

5. It explains why you should treasure and value the people in your life. Aside from providing a welcome break from the endless work of conscious selfhood, other people's perspectives can stop you from going totally crazy. The fact that selfhood IS such an intense experience makes it really fortunate that we have other people around to sort of temper the intensity. And this works especially well when it's someone we are very close to who we care about a lot, particularly if the person is in our care. I had my first baby last year and one of the unexpected wonders of the whole experience has been that it's taken me out of myself to a very refreshing degree. It's certainly possible to take very good care of someone, or be taken care of, without that person having as intimate an understanding of you as you have of yourself.

We are here to engage with the world, and that means other people. We learn systems and rules to navigate the world and achieve things in it. The way we feel inside ourselves wouldn't mean much without the world that we live in. It's hard being in the world while being ourselves all the time, but at least everyone else has to do it too, and if we bear that in mind, it might seem easier.