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.
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
正常 良好 高贵相违背的种种行径
has been registered by the widest constituency.
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 other people.
How we think and feel about other 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 inner an elevator,
standing next to someone on our way to the 20th floor.
They think they know that 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 in reality 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 imagine it’s well on the way 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 kind of news is both very bad and also strangely good.
On the one hand no one may notice when we die,
on the other they are also sure not to 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 career, our finances,
our health, our close relatives,
our upcoming holidays,
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 other people,
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 gonna be a possibility;
the start of a new business,
a romantic invitation,
or asking 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 future success
(something which, as we now know,
no one will much notice or care about anyway).
At the school of life,
we believe that confidence is the skill we can all learn.
Click now to learn more.
We tend to begin our lives