Written by George Gibson.
I recently posted a quotation from Timothy Leary, adding that I really, REALLY liked it. A good friend asked, ‘Why George?’ so I decided to take a serious try at answering.
“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences.
For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”
Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…”
And in answer to my friend, I said: "There is a lot to unwrap in this quote, beginning with alienation."
I have spent a lot of time in my life feeling frustrated by my apparent inability to ‘be like them.’
In small social settings, the quick repartee is too fast and jarring for my processor, and I either don’t get the jokes, or they just seem unfunny. I end up sitting and observing without really participating, to the extent that when I leave, no one will notice. If I found an opportunity I might be able to discuss some topic with someone, but that’s not what people do.
In larger groups, I stand aside, amazed at the constantly animated jabber in the room, wondering for the hundredth time, ‘What on earth do they all find to talk about?’ If an acquaintance should approach, we’ll do the weather, the kids, the travel, and then stand awkwardly, surrounded by the jabber, until one of us finds a way to wander off.
I’m better and more comfortable with strangers.
Others find my thinking slow, lumbering and ponderous, and they’re right. On the other hand, I find I often have to wait for them to catch up. We think differently, they and I. I’m an analyst, a bit of a pedant, clarifying, clarifying. Blah, blah, blah is what they hear. To my ear, they are disorganized, inconsistent, and lacking a mental map. I think about politics, philosophy, history, anthropology, social organization, social justice, and the distant future. They think about other stuff (apparently).
But in addition to all that, we each have our secret mental life that hides securely in some mysterious space that seems to be inside our hard-shelled craniums. We alone experience all the frenetic activity and shuffle that goes on behind our eyes, and we experience it alone. We don’t control it. Intrusive thoughts. Unbidden fantasy. Uninvited emotion. Long periods of pensive reflection.
We can’t share it, no matter how close we might feel. It is simply the flow of our own raw experience, and no one else has it. They have their own. Our eyes, our facial expressions; our flushing, paling, and tearing up; the noises we make with our mouths and throats; our wonderful intellectual vocabulary; these tools are all too clumsy to express it. We might as well be building a toothpick house with our elbows.
We think differently. I don’t mean that we have different opinions. I mean, our mental processors work differently. Give our senses precisely the same input, and our processors will receive it differently and then modify it differently, make different connections with it, and store it differently. If called upon we will form different conclusions from it and then use our clumsy tools to report it differently. Our best efforts at communication are dominated by the heavy labour of avoiding misunderstanding.
But then, we CAN connect, as Timothy says, if we try.
The girl in the elevator resonates. I have a story: I was once on the upper floor of a luxury hotel, asking questions at a women’s spa, hoping to make some secret arrangements. I was a little out of my element, ‘What goes on here anyway?’ Later, I found myself in the elevator with a young woman, maybe mid-thirties. I was fifteen years older, all of this now fifteen years ago.
She was broken, or at least breaking. I don’t even know how I could tell. She wasn’t actively crying. Something in the posture, the breathing maybe, I don’t know, but my heart went out to her. I knew sadness, and I knew she was there.
Something made me speak. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. Our eyes met, and now I could see how close the tears were. ‘It will be alright,’ I added gently, sincerely.
Why? By what inexplicable excuse for a right did I say such a thing? How would I know? Her mother was terminal? She lost a baby? A relationship was poison? I had no possible idea. But she looked back in obvious appreciation. She made just the smallest whisper of a tiny sigh, and her shoulders loosened. The weakest of smiles transformed her face, and she said with genuine gratitude, ‘Thank you.’
There was a ding; the doors opened, and we parted, she to the right, I to the left. What happened in that elevator? We each found an ‘Other’, and gave that other a gift. We can find them, and we can connect if, as Timothy urges, we seek out the Other. It takes effort. It can be a bit of a risk, as in the elevator. But what we actually DO know about each other is that we are, all of us, engaged in the same damn struggle.