We tend to begin our lives with a deeply unrepresentative
experience: that of being surrounded by people
who care to an extraordinary extent about
us. We look up from the dreams and confusions
of early infancy and may find a smiling face
or two observing us with the utmost tenderness
and concern. They watch us as a rivulet of
saliva leaks slowly from the corner of our
mouth and rush to wipe it away as if dabbing
at a precious canvas, then indulgently stroke
the fine soft hairs on our delicate scalps.
They declare us close to supernatural when,
at last, we succeed in pulling our first smile.
The applause rings for days when we take our
initial steps, giggle, totter, fall, and bravely
try to resume our progress.
It isn’t just at home. At school, the best
teachers encourage us when we find something
difficult; they understand we might be shy;
they’re keen to detect and encourage the
early, tentative signs of our particular talents.
Then, of course, we grow up and are inducted
into a horrific reality: we exist in a world
of astonishing indifference to almost everything
we are, think, say or do. We might be in late
adolescence when the point really hits home.
We might be in a bedsit at university or wandering
the streets of the city at night on our own
– when it occurs to us, with full force,
how negligible a thing we are in the wider
scheme. No one in the crowds we pass knows
anything about us. Our welfare is of no concern
to them. They jostle against us on the pavements,
and treat us as a mere impediment to their
progress. Huge trucks thunder past. No one
is going to stroke our head or wipe away our
saliva now. We’re tiny against the towers
and brightly-lit flashing advertising hoardings.
We might die and no one would even notice.
It may be a stern truth – but we make it
all the more so by focusing only on its darkest
dimensions. We remain grief-stricken by how
invisible we are, yet we cease to put this
bracing thought to its proper philosophical
purpose, that of rescuing us from another
problem which is gnawing at us all the while:
an ongoing and highly corrosive sense of self-consciousness.
In another side of our minds, we haven’t
accepted the indifference of others at all,
in fact, we know, and suffer intensely, from
just how much (as we feel sure) others are
thinking of us. We’re extremely worried
about how high-pitched and odd our voice sounded
when we asked the waiter for a bit more milk.
We’re certain that the sales attendant noticed
how out of shape our stomach is. The people
in the restaurant where we’re eating alone
are undoubtedly spending considerable time
wondering why we have no friends.
At work, they’re
still dwelling on that slightly stupid thing
we said last month about the US sales strategy.
A person we went to bed with four years ago
is to this day thinking ill of us in some
powerful but undefined way.
We don’t really have evidence for any of
this, and yet it can feel like an emotional
certainty. It is intuitively clear that our
foolishness and less than impressive sides
are being noted and dwelt on all the time
by everyone at large. Every way in which we
depart from what the world considers to be
normal, upstanding and dignified has been
registered by the widest constituency. ‘They’
can tell that we’ve bumped into doors, spilt
things down our front, misremembered anecdotes,
tried to show off and have something odd going
on with our hair.
To liberate us from this punitive narrative,
we may need to conduct a deliberately artificial
thought-exercise; we may have to set ourselves
the challenge of examining how long we spend
on the foolishness (or just existence) of
others. How we think and feel about people
we don’t particularly know is perhaps the
best guide to the workings of the average
human imagination: to pretty much the rest
of the world, we are the very same sort of
strangers or casual acquaintances as we know
and deal with in our own daily experience.
And here, the results can be surprising. Imagine
that we’re in a lift, standing next to someone
on our way to the 20th floor. They know we
disapprove of their choice of jacket. They
know they should have picked another one and
that they look silly and pinched in this one.
But we haven’t noticed the jacket. In fact,
we haven’t noticed they were born – or
that one day they will die. We’re just worrying
about how our partner responded when we mentioned
our mother’s cold to them last night.
Or it’s well into the last bit of a two
hour meeting that we sense that a colleague’s
hair really is a bit different today, though
we can’t quite put a finger on how – even
though they spent a small fortune on their
cut and thought intensely about the wisdom
of visiting a new salon.
In other words, when we take our own minds as a guide we get a far more accurate and far less oppressive vision of whats likely to be
going on in the heads of other people when they encounter us. Which is in the nicest way, not very much. This news is both very bad and also strangely good. on he one hand someone may not notice when we die and they will be sure to not notice when we spill some orange juice down
our front or do our hair the wrong way.
It’s not that we – or they – are horrible.
Our lacking of caring isn’t absolute. If
we really saw a stranger in trouble in the
water, we would dive in. When a friend is
in tears, we are sympathetic. It’s just
that for the most part, we need to filter.
Our everyday lack of care occurs for a perfectly
sane and forgivable reason: we need to spend
most our waking energies on navigating, and
doing justice to, our own intimate concerns.
Once we’ve had to think about our relationship,
our career, our finances, our health, our
close relatives, our offspring, our upcoming
holidays, our friends and the state of our
household, there will just be very little
time left to reflect on the suddenly high-pitched
voice of a customer or the outfit of a colleague.
We are owed the upside of an otherwise tragic
insight. We shouldn’t just suffer from the
indifference of others, we should – where
it matters – properly reciprocate it. We
shouldn’t merely suffer from being ignored,
we should accept the liberation implicit in
the fact that we are being so. And then, in
turn, we should embark more courageously on
those situations and adventures where a touch
of foolishness is always a possibility; the
start of a new business, a romantic invitation,
a question at a conference… We may fail,
but we can believe with new certainty that
almost no one will give a damn if we do, an
idea that may – above anything else – help
to contribute to our success (something which,
as we now know, no one will much notice or
care about anyway).