What you see is not all there is
It’s late on a Saturday night, and I feel a slight pull to go out, to put down my notebooks, to wander outside and do the “going out” thing I sometimes like to do. I feel the tug, the urge to walk down to the local bars, to surround myself with crowds of other people, drinking, dancing, playing.
It’s what everyone else is doing, I think to myself. You don’t have to be writing or working right now. It’s not normal. I shake my head at that thought for a second, struggling with this idea of “normal.”
What’s normal? What’s typical? How often does it change?
The funny thing is, even when I go out at night, put the dress on, find myself shaking, talking, bars crawling, people laughing, music pounding, dancing, heavy music reverberating… I still wonder. Is this it? Is this what there is? Is the extent of what’s possible? Are my only two options staying in, or going out? Is there something I’m missing, something else I’m not seeing?
The visual is limited, deceptive, yet it strangely beckons me. Everyone is doing this, I think. When I’m out, all I see are all the other people going out; I see the action and the activity. What I don’t see, however, is everything else.
What I don’t see right in front of me are the people at home, preparing for bed, watching movies, slowly unraveling from their days. People surrounding the dinner table, laughing; casual conversations. People at home, working late, start-ups, built over time; writers, pouring over books. Philosophers, musing over ideas. Yogis stretching in and out of another day of activity. Writers spending time behind the books, dreaming. Hustlers working four different jobs, filling their late Saturday nights with the tips from behind a counter, building a freedom fund to travel the world.
As I watch and wander, wondering about what it is that people do, I see the fallacy of vision, the limitations of judging the world merely by what we see: what we see is not all that there is.
Perception is not reality, although it readily distorts it.
What we know and understand to be true comes from our past experiences and from what we’re able to observe about what others do. We clue into Facebook for this reason: to see and be seen, to hear and be heard, to keep tabs on the people around us, to see what they’re doing. But this reality-distortion field, if you will, is based on the collective assumption that we’re each reporting our lives accurately. And we’re not. We can’t possibly be. The act of editing, processing, and determining what to share filters our collective report into the most interesting, unique, or share-worthy status. I’m going to guess that collectively, Facebook posts are more heavily skewed towards the extrovert, towards the person inclined to share, and towards the posts related to exploration, adventure, vacation, food, and friends. In short, everything I want to be doing. That is, Facebook is inherently biased. The system of “liking” creates a slow but consistent classical conditioning that primes each of us to post content that generates feedback, or to be, well, interesting.
The number of pictures I take of myself working, behind a desk, hiding behind my pajamas and thick writer’s glasses? Disproportionately smaller than the amount of time I spend behind my pens, paper and books.
Just like on Saturday night, or any night, or on the collective digital over-share of online social media, there’s a whole world of more, of things we don’t hear about and don’t see. The invisible.
Just because you see something happening one way doesn’t mean you, too, are obligated to do it. Call it the face of peer pressure, but you don’t need to do something–have sex, build a start-up, be successful by thirty–because everyone on television or in your local sphere appears to be doing so. You don’t need to dress fancy, or be extroverted, or drink extensively. You’re allowed to be different. To follow your bliss. To do what matters to you. And just because you don’t see something happening doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives to what you’ve already seen.
The older I get, the more I learn to unpack and listen to the quiet power of my inner voice coaching me, telling me what to do, guiding me away from the pull of the collective, the pull of “normal.”
What is normal? Who defines it? Isn’t normal an idea defined by the average of what everyone else is doing? I’m not certain that I want to be average, or better yet, do what everyone else is doing.
Some evenings I get home and the bones in my body ache to move, my muscles tell me that despite the cultural normalcy that declares our collective culture sit still behind desks and overeat massive quantities of bread and potatoes, I have to firmly disagree, eating handfuls of lettuce and kale and lose myself in the fluidity of space. I spent years trying to quash this compulsion to move, and I’m tired of it. I can’t. I’m embarrassed only that it took me so long to recover my “essential self,” and be okay with dancing and wandering in streets to the tune of my body, as opposed to the tune of a giant cacophony of internalized social expectations. And so, I put on my tired and worn-thin running clothes and start out on the streets of San Francisco to wander a city in my feet, in my body, lost in my mind, lost in ideas. My words and thoughts tumble over the pavement, reverberating between the building spaces, dancing in the open spaces of our city systems, playing within the loose rule-sets that guide them, challenging each other, challenging me.
Other times, my body craves the warm solitude of being amidst of a crowd of quiet people, a coffee shop reverie with late night candles and the option to be alone, by myself.
And then, still again, some times I find myself craving a great shake-off, a dance, an agglomeration of people and bodies and warm dancing, the crowded room of bodies stinging with sweat, salt appearing on my skin through sweat and exertion, hips shaking in rhythm to the beat of dance music, throbbing, laughing, shaking off the cacophony of thought just to be. And then, I go out. I engage. I dance.
What do you need to do to be you?
Some people work late in the evenings to finish classes, to gain expertise, to chart a new path in a direction tangential to their primary occupation. I remember stories from one of my relatives about the evenings spent getting her teaching credential post-work, and how difficult, yet rewarding, it was to spend the time for a year to make a new opportunity for herself.
It’s true in the social space, too. Our “Facebook world” is designed to share the accomplishments, the awards, and in aggregate you can feel overwhelmed by the sea of information. Sometimes it seems like everyone else is going on magnificent vacations, having babies, getting married, or winning a Pulitzer prize.
What you don’t see, however, in the compression of space that the internet proffers, are the years and years behind each of those plans, the sacrifices made in exchange for the work put forward. The money spent on the time off. The years spent writing the books. The hours spend alone behind a guitar, learning, string by string and chord by chord, how to map the sequence of rhythms and sounds into your fingers until your body knew it so well your mind forgot the need to think about it and it just became a part of who you were.
In an online conversation with a friend about the difference between achievement and doing, he said,
“In general, I’ve found that our minds are trained extremely well by schools, parents and society such that we can develop a mental concept of excellence faster than we can embody it. I can totally see myself in my head acting a scene at Academy-Award winning levels but to actually bring that into my body will take a lifetime of work and improvement. So there is this perpetual gap between what we think is excellent and what we can actually communicate. With not just acting, most other things too. I fear with the Internet and social networking, we will only get further and further away from actually embodying and experiencing and more into discussing, abstracting and conceptualizing.”
Doing takes time, effort, repetition, quiet exertion, solitude, and sometimes, invisibility. The space to practice. The space to dream, explore, be, and do.
It takes years, years, years, and practice, practice, practice to get to the place where you’re doing something in the way that you are shaped and primed to do.
What are you doing that no one else sees?
What other options are there? You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. The world needs you to be weird. Or better yet, to be you.
Not what you think you ought to be.