I Know I’m Not The Only One

I suppose it is a bit unusual that I would find an insightful comment from an author’s discussion of the rivalry between Prince and Michael Jackson in the 1980s.  Given that the insight involved quirkiness and awkwardness, though, I suppose it is not that unusual.  The author, who appears to be only a bit older than I am, commented that everyone remembers being awkward and out of place while they are growing up and that most people are too self-absorbed to realizes that everyone else feels that they are awkward too.  Consider me a bit pessimistic when it comes to my own relentless self-absorption and that of others, but I think people fail to recognize that other people feel as awkward as they do well into adulthood [1].  At any rate, such awkwardness is extremely common and it is worth reflecting on this a little.

I remember being deeply struck once by looking at the book tastes of someone I happen to know personally and with whom I have notoriously awkward interactions.  This person, who I consider a particularly attractive person, was fond of a series called Uglies, where people presumably struggle with how they are viewed by others.  And even if I can be a bit self-absorbed by my own intense shyness and awkwardness in social situations, I am at least observant enough to recognize that many of the people I know are at least as equally awkward as I am in their own ways.  And yet we are all awkward by ourselves, as being uncomfortable and anxious are not the sorts of feelings that are easily shared with others.  Even if we understand that other people are just as uncomfortable as we are, and perhaps even for similar reasons that we are, it can be hard to communicate the mutuality of what is felt so that everyone may be more at ease and less uncomfortable.  The gulf between the desire to be at ease and to put others at ease and the ability to do so is particularly great.

This asymmetry in our lives between the universality of what we feel and the limited amounts of what we recognize is not only the case when it comes to our own discomfort at awkward interactions with other people.  Nearly everyone I know feels it difficult to communicate in some fashion.  They wish that they could say what they think and feel better to others.  They wish they had more people to communicate with, to share their experiences and insights to, and and they wish others would talk to them and listen to them.  In theory, this should not be that complicated.  If nearly everyone–at least within the circle of people I interact with and observe with–struggles with matters of communication, one would think that we would be more empathetic with the communication struggles of other people.  And yet we are not often very empathetic.  What is to account for this?  How is there such a disconnect between how we know ourselves to be and how we expect others to be?

A large part of the gap appears to spring from the fact that we know ourselves far better than we know other people and instead of using our self knowledge to make reasonable extrapolations of others, we judge ourselves by our motives and ideals and intents and judge others by their imperfect performance.  Others, of course, do the same thing to us.  Sometimes when we extrapolate from ourselves to others we do a bad job of it because of a difference in worldview and belief system that leads us to underestimate the distance between us and others, but far too often we fail to recognize the essential discomfort and awkwardness that involve being a human being.  Among many examples that I could choose, let me choose one that illustrates the similarity of awkwardness across otherwise wide gulfs.  During my mid 20’s I visited Turkey and towards the end of that trip I went to the Hagia Sophia (originally built during the time of Justinian in the 6th century AD).  Nearby there was a particular famous mosque that I visited along with some other people in our group, and on the grounds of that mosque during Ramadan there was a gentleman selling lamb kebabs.  While some of my acquaintances were a bit hungry and unwilling to wait for dinner and got some of them, I looked rather askance and saw to my surprise that there were some presumably conservative Muslims who appeared to be on the hajj who had the same sort of look of shock and disapproval that I did of the scene of someone selling food during a time of fasting.

I wasn’t the only one, in other words, who disapproved of the concept, and in general I have found it somewhat comforting not to be alone when it comes to such matters, since I often (understandably) feel alone in the course of my life.  I feel less isolated as a person when I see that the problems of my life are not my problems alone, but are very widespread problems.  Common pain and common suffering leads to common feeling and hopefully common solutions.  Even if I remain a rather awkward and uncomfortable person in my dealings with other people, at least I hope that my awareness that other people are just as awkward as I am in their own ways makes me more compassionate and understanding towards them and more patient if they fail to return the favor to me, knowing how difficult it is to look at the wider world as a whole in the face of our own private struggles.

[1] See, for example:









About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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