I was 15 years old, and I was curled up in bed talking on the phone with my girlfriend. It was an evening ritual that I enjoyed, because it made me feel connected. She would ask me about my day, and I would tell her of my successes and failures, what books I was reading, what games I had played, and what I had been thinking about.
One day, after a short lull in the conversation, she asked me: “Why don’t you ever ask me how my day went?” I was stunned: I literally didn’t know what to say. So I blurted out the truth: “I…. I just assumed that if you had anything that you wanted to share, you’d just tell me!”
This was a mindset I carried through most of my young adult life. The nuances of social interaction were transparent to me: I never had to struggle to make myself seen or heard, it just happened. This meant the mechanics of social interaction were invisible to me, as well.
You can imagine it, I suppose, as being like visual perception. When you look at a flower, there is a huge amount of processing going on in your brain to convert patterns of light and color hitting your eyes into a full-scale reconstruction of the three-dimensional object in front of you. Your brain has to figure out where edges are based on changes in brightness in color, it must figure out which edge-crossings represent a corner or a bend in the same object and which ones represent one object passing in front of another, and eventually it must create a three-dimensional representation of a physical thing.
But you are completely unaware that this is going on. Your experience is very simple: you directly apprehend a three dimensional object in front of you. It is rare that you become aware that your brain is doing work to create the visual world that you experience; usually that only happens when something goes wrong.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, all smiles and charm, in a voice dripping with apology,.”I’m just really bad with names!”
This time I was in my early 20’s, at an after-party among friends and acquaintances. Most of them were people I recognized from out at bars and clubs every weekend. I generally smiled can gave a “hey dude!” to people I recognized, but this time someone had caught me: I was forced to admit that I didn’t know his name. So, I apologized.
A closer friend of mine in the group called me out: “You’re not bad with names, Greg. You just don’t bother!”
People snickered and I laughed it off, but it hurt me a little. Was it true? Maybe it was. I’m not a stupid guy. I have the capacity to remember all kinds of things: esoteric facts about hundreds of subjects. So why exactly is it that I am “bad with names”?
Is this the person I want to be?
In the winter of early 1997, I was having a serious conversation with a guy named Jason. He had behaved rudely to a group of people who were trying to talk to us out at a bar, and to one person in particular who had been trying to flirt with him. I thought he had been unnecessarily cruel, so I asked him about it.
“Oh, I didn’t even think about it,” he said to me, “When I go out I’m in my own little world. I’m oblivious to stuff like that.”
What struck me the most was his tone as he said this. He wasn’t merely dismissive: he was prideful. His manner suggested there was virtue in being oblivious to those around him.
Perhaps this struck a little too close to home for me, because I thought about it for weeks afterwards. What did it mean for him to be proud of being oblivious?
Maybe it was to distance himself from the opposite extreme. Most young adults are overly concerned with what other people think and feel. Lots of people associate this anxiety with insecurity and weakness. People are told that if they were more confident, they wouldn’t care what other people think! Perhaps by extension, confident people also don’t care how others feel. There is a certain image of toughness, especially for young men, associated with being able to breeze through life with blinders on, telling the world: “your emotions are your responsibility, not mine!”
Maybe it’s a way to convince himself that he’s more confident than he is: by acting out the role of the person who “doesn’t care”, he can look in the mirror and not see the type of person he knows himself to be: needy, anxious, and very much caring what everyone thinks.
As it turned out, my theory was close to the mark. In a separate conversation later on, he spelled it out to me: “I see popular guys, hot guys, who ignore everyone and treat people like crap all the time. And they get away with it, because they are popular and hot. And I figure… if I can get away with it, then that must mean I’m popular and hot, too.”
Dear freaking lord: I’d met a real-life Heather Duke.
And I vowed that I would not be like that.
I’m morally opposed to New Years resolutions, for the same reason I’m opposed to diets. When people say “I’m going on a diet,” by default that means they have no intention of making long-term changes to their eating habits. They are seeking a temporary change, for a short-term goal.
Striving to meet short-term milestones is fine, but too often “resolutions”–like “diets”–don’t lead to you becoming a better person: they lead to you being the same person, who was “good” for a short while.
So if pressed, I would have to say my 2017 “new years resolutions” are to continue working on all of the ways I know I can be a better person. One of those is to strive against my deeply-rooted tendency to be oblivious.
I’m better than I was 20 years ago, but I still sometimes hurt those I love deeply simply by not thinking through the ways in which my choices impact them. Sometimes I still assume that everyone thinks and feels and reacts just like me.
I’ve passed through the phase of being ignorant about it. I somehow avoided the pitfall of being “proud” of it. Now I’m proud to resolve to move forward for another year–and another decade, and another half-century–of simply becoming more of the person I’d like to be.
How about you? If you were making a New Years resolution, not for a year but for a lifetime, what would it be?