Nothing like a few days of trying to pass as normal to the outside world while inside your nervous system is freaking out to make you wonder: What’s it like inside the people you pass by on the street or stand next to on the subway?
I remember this as a revelation from when I first developed panic attacks. I felt locked inside my own head, and no one could get through to me, and it made me think about what other people experience in their minds, from their point of view. Sure, the first thing I thought of was people struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. That was most relevant to me at the time–the extreme cases, the people who look normal but who are experiencing a completely different world than you are because something is fundamentally different in their brain chemistry. But now that (knock on wood) my little relapse is under control, I’m wondering about the general case. What’s it like to be you, that waiter, or the lady reading “Game of Thrones” on the Brown Line?
I forget sometimes how powerful our consciousness and individual point of view can be. I don’t always register when I’ve gone into my head and am not really paying attention to the outside world. Because I’m sort of an in-my-head person. It’s usually pretty nice in there. Lots of pillows and soft blankets. There’s music and stories and all my favorite characters and friends and family members, and the world from in my head tends to look exciting and full of possibilities. At least, it does at the best of times, when I’m feeling like myself and am not too stressed out. Or it’s got a lot of stuff I need to sort through, schedules to complete, tasks to slot into given bits of time. I can lose an entire 10 minute walk trying to figure out that kind of thing.
I know I make the mistake of assuming that I’m deeper, more thoughtful, wiser, more profound (and continue ad nauseum) than the random guy bumping into me with his backpack on the El. I try to catch myself when I do it. I hate being elitist, and I’ve had a pretty elite life with some elite opportunities. It doesn’t mean I know more of life, or think more, or have penetrated the depths of the world deeper, than someone else who’s done very different things with his or her life. But it can be hard to remember when I never get to look into someone else’s skull. I know that I’ve been thinking seriously about the meaning of life and the possibilities beyond death since I was five years old. I hear that other people have done the same, but I can’t really reach in and compare the experiences directly. We all have to take everyone else’s experience from their accounts of it, making room for bias and a desire to look good in a story and then the filters and assumptions we tend to attach and make, assumptions that they may not be making at all. If we process the world very differently than someone else, it’s going to be hard to understand their way of seeing things.
For example: I’m not a highly visual person. Sometimes I wish I were. I’d love to have visions of how some project or set should look. But it’s not how I work. I look at the imaginative drawings and designs of friends in awe. I would love to be able to see the world as a visual palette, to store images in my head and process the world in terms of them and in creation to be able to mix and match until I hit something beautiful. My world is full of words and sounds and emotional nuance and thought patterns. I can hear how a musical line should subtly change to better highlight the lyrics of a song. It’s a different way of experiencing the world–not better, not worse, just alternative. And I wish we could switch out every so often so that my friend who has no value for words could see what it’s like for me when he tells me that the language I choose is worthless and it’s only the actions I take that matter. To me, words matter, and if he’s never felt that, he might not be able to understand just how much they matter.
Part of this is pure voyeurism, of course. I’m always curious about other people and their secrets. Part, too, is that I feel like I’ve hit on a special club, a mini-brotherhood that sounds much cooler and more fun than it is. There are millions of people trying to pretend everything is okay in their lives every day when inside they feel hopeless or frightened or depressed or despairing or lonely or suicidal. I’ve seen and have participated in the tip of that iceberg. I want to know more about these people–how do they “pass,” do they manage to do so, does someone notice that something’s wrong, do they get help? Are we all so caught up in our own lives that we mostly don’t notice, or do we turn away and pretend not to see? I know that I feel obvious when I’m upset and in public, but how often do I notice it in others? How often do I let myself pay attention and offer comfort? How often is comfort from me even appropriate, when would it even be helpful?
So there’s your light, breezy Thursday morning food-for-thought. Last week you got off easy with a LOLaura. Today’s assignment is to pay attention to the people around you and just see if you notice people who are struggling. And if you do, it would be great if you’d be a little bit extra nice to them.
And hey, remember that time I felt like a jerk at guitar? Well, yesterday I had a very pleasant interaction with the woman I was sure I’d pissed off. So there you go. Another example of me being so much in my own head that I misjudged a situation.
Either that or she’s just a way better person than I am. We won’t rule that out.
*And now I have “Zombie” by The Cranberries stuck in my head.