The best thing I’ve ever learned


Must lists of advice from the dying all be trite? Some mishmash of “tell people you love them,” and “buy experiences, not things” and “don’t concentrate on petty things like cellulite” and “eat the cake” and some “do things for others” sprinkled in there for good measure.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not currently dying. But I can share with you the best thing I’ve ever learned. Realized. There’s a story. In 6th grade social studies, we had to do projects and present in front of the class. I watched the other students present, each of them a jumble of nerves, fumbling over their own insecurities. I watched the students in the audience. No one was paying attention to the speaker. Every last one of them had their own matters to fret about. Their own upcoming presentations, homework they need to finish for the next class, or just daydreams. I learned something liberating that day:

No one is paying attention to you.

No one cares enough to judge what you’re doing. They have their own concerns. Now you know. You don’t have to filter everything you say and do through questions like “but what will people think of me?” They aren’t thinking of you at all. Every detail you’re perfecting will register as a millisecond blip on most radars. If that.

Small caveat: a handful of people over your lifetime are paying attention. They’re paying rapt attention and every word you utter, every stray expression on your face, every imagined intention is a scrap for the starving. They can’t put it down, they can’t stop wanting more, and they will remember everything you say and do.  If you write a single word, a throwaway “hello” on a stained napkin, they will keep it forever in a box under their bed. But don’t worry, to such a person, you walk on water. With their attention they’re saying “I worship you.” This is an entirely different matter. If there is a way to gently make it clear to such a person that you can’t reciprocate without crushing them, please teach me. It’ll make the top 10 list of best things I’ve ever learned. For sure.

In all cases, don’t worry about being judged. Mostly, they’re regular people wrapped up in their own lives. They don’t see you at all. If you meet a supplicant, just try and be kind.

On lists for liking

Nigel: What are you doing, little girl?

Dolly: I’m trying to make a list, Nigel.

N: Hmm. I can see that. To what end?

D: I’m making a list of reasons I like someone to see if they are valid reasons to feel the way I feel about them.

N: Oh! How droll. You seem to be having some difficulty though. Why?

D: Well, I don’t know what reasons are valid, and even if I did, I’m not sure what weight to give them.

N: That does seem like a problem. Maybe I can help. Just list anything that comes to mind and we’ll sort through it together.

D: Good idea. Nigel, you’re the best. Okay. I have a boy in mind. In no particular order, I like his eyes, his hair, his ribs, brushing him and the way he smells. He’s a pretty boy.

N: Darling, you can’t be serious. Those things are ephemeral. You can’t possibly base a meaningful relationship or friendship on those things.

D: But Nigel. What about living in the moment? I also hear that all of the time. Live in the moment, enjoy the moment. I can’t be thinking about when he loses his pretty eyes in an accident, and all his pretty hair to baldness or disease. I can’t worry about whether he’ll become so obese I never see his ribs again. Right? Enjoy what exists for just right now?

N: Dolly — those words don’t mean what you’re playing at. You know better. They mean that you shouldn’t fret about losing what you have, the way that your favorite sonnet does. But nothing you listed there has any predictive power about anything else. Don’t you like anything about him that gives you insight about who he is?

D: I like the way he looks at me, I like his company, I like how he makes me feel. He is sweet.

N: But you are trying to inform your feelings for him, right? Attempting to correct the magnitude of your feelings to factual observations and using unassailable logic? In that case, it rather begs the question to mention how you feel. All of these are about your own feelings. Try for facts, but deeper ones than the first ones you gave.

D: I don’t know very much more about him. He purrs continually when I sit near him.

N: Dolly. Dolly, are we talking about a cat? Please tell me we aren’t talking about a cat.

D: Yes! Here’s a picture. Every time I see him I want to take him home with me he’s such a darling old gentleman. Just the best lap cat I’ve ever met. I mean, there isn’t much more I can know about him, right? Isn’t it enough that I just like him?

N: …

Why did I ever think you could be serious. Even for a moment. I think I need tea…

This thought experiment has been cute, but I would question the need for such a system. Surely its use would not be to try to convince yourself of someone’s worth once you already felt they were a waste of your time? If you had the most robust list of valid attributes, an impeccable metric, and the coolness of mind to apply it, would you use it in this way? Would you force yourself to admit you had unfairly dismissed someone as someone you couldn’t date or be friends with?

D: No, I don’t think that’s an intended purpose of this system.

N: Right. So it is only to force yourself in the other direction: to reign in strong feelings that you determine, by these measurements, that you have no right to have. 

D: I think that’s the purpose, yes.

N: That would imply that there is no use for feelings at all. Nothing that can’t be accounted for cleanly by looking at the facts and pushing all of them through to their logical conclusions. But then you have that! What happens if two people look the exact-same on paper, but yet you feel differently about them? Is that extra information invalid — and you have to ignore it? Because there is a world of information that comes in with no conscious effort. Information we have no ability to explain, information we aren’t conscious of, but nonetheless have bearing in some way. For example, we are more attracted to people with complementary immune systems and we can “tell” this by their pheromones — we think they smell good. 

D: Don’t be tiresome, Nigel. I know about pheromones. But those are for the purpose of reproduction, right? What if your focus is on long term compatibility? Don’t you have to ignore factors like that and the initial rush of dopamine and other happy neurotransmitters?

N: The answer isn’t to ignore any of it. Or to peg feelings to the set of conscious information. But maybe, realising that there is so much that you aren’t aware of, credit the non-conscious information for what you may think is an irrationally strong feeling. Have you figured out the motivation for using such a system? Rationalizing feelings out of existence?

D: I’m not sure. But perhaps it’s to never have to look back and say, “I was possessed to say that. Now I have to explain why it’s no longer true.”

N: Oh, for heaven’s sake. Dispense with list-making. Dispense with quality-measuring. Leave the metrics to the mathematicians. All that you need is to keep that nonsense to yourself. If you need to declare anything, declare it to me, little girl. I’ll write it down for you and we can throw it in the fire and watch it dance.

D: Sounds like a plan! What if it’s something that I ought to say? Something that someone needs to hear from me?

N: Nonsense. What’s meant to be will be. A person who belongs with you will never need to hear you say a single damned thing. He or she will read it in your eyes, your touch, and in the nuances between your words. Don’t forget your motto. We finally found one that fit. Let’s say it together and get on with our day, shall we?

In every way implied but never stated.

Poolside lurker

I went to the pool today, wearing this white, flouncy… well. It’s one of those “is this a dress or is it a shirt” things. I even had my lunchbox with me. This was in an effort to appear too young, or perhaps crazy. Because that offsets the sexy of someone who wears more-or-less lingerie in public right?

Being at the pool reminded me of a slightly terrifying experience I had years ago. I was the only person at my apartment building’s pool. I was there for maybe an hour before I left, just swimming and sunning myself. On my way out, a mentally retarded boy started following me. He had been crouched behind some bushes, watching me for who knows how long. It wasn’t far to the door, but he caught up with me and said in his scary voice “You’re pretty. I want to touch you…” And then, he reached out and tried to. Luckily, I made it inside the door and closed it in time. It reminded me of this Salad Fingers episode:

Also, it’s instructive. It’s what I’ve kept in mind all these years when I’ve been tempted to flirt with anyone. I remember that they may find me just as horrifying as I found that poolside lurker.

Remind me sometime, and I’ll tell you the story of why I’m terrified to my core of mentally retarded people.

Kony 2012

The  Kony 2012 video* being linked everywhere these days is almost half an hour of simplified, overwrought propaganda that attempts to boil down an international human rights issue with complex historical causes into something a toddler would understand. They want you to believe that it’s as easy as the battle between good and evil. It’s as simple as buying this box (I kid you not, they are selling a box with bracelets and posters) and having a camp-out protest. Who are we not to stop a war, they ask. Because, if you believe their propaganda, this issue is as simple as pressuring our government to send troops in to kill an evil man and save the day. Just as the problem of child poverty can be solved by overpaying for Tom’s shoes and feeling good that your purchase means a poor unfortunate child somewhere will also get a pair.

Nothing is as simple as we want it to be. Foreign Affairs has a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the Kony situation, but even if reading the article takes a fraction of the time that watching the viral Kony video might I am confident that far fewer people will. The article is full of dry facts detailing a complicated political situation. It doesn’t have any dramatic music or heartrending pictures. Reading it doesn’t help you feel morally superior or motivate you to buy a box care or do something about the situation.

I don’t want this to seem like an entirely one-sided critique, so I will include for your reading pleasure the rebuttal from Invisible Children (the organization behind the viral video) to the many complaints against them.

Here are a few interesting expenditures from just the 2011 fiscal year:

$1,444,567 on “Management & General”
$1,164,935 on “National Tour”
$699,617 on “Media & Film Creation”
$292,155 on “Web and Design”
$213,902 on “Communications”

I am not convinced that the founders of the organization weren’t simply leveraging a desperate situation abroad to line their own pockets. Are you?

Even worse than all that, there are people who know far more than me about the situation suggesting that the Ugandan government (whose military IC wants us to support) is responsible for atrocities just as bad, if not worse than the LRA, including keeping millions of civilians in concentration camps subsisting on foreign aid “for their own safety.” One Ugandan policy expert even thinks our government sees IC and their propaganda as “useful idiots” – ones which give us an excuse to further our enhance our military presence in a region rich in natural resources.

There is an important lesson to be learned here, and I thank Invisible Children and their campaign for reminding me of it:

Always be suspicious of something which attempts to make you feel something and then attempts to take your money.

Other useful links:
On Kony 2012
Think Twice Before Donating to Kony 2012

* I have decided against linking it here because I fundamentally disagree with its manipulative tone and content.