What You Don’t See

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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.

People, doing.

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. 

Just… you.

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19 Responses to What You Don’t See

  1. Cheri Lucas says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I found this post via the comment section of my recent dancing/technology piece. As I read this post — on the things we don’t see — I was reminded of a post I’d written on Facebook status updates and the things I *should* have said:

    It’s a struggle, especially with all the social media chatter, to figure out the right kind of life for oneself, isn’t it? The noise can be rather distracting, but I’ve slowly learned to tune out what I don’t need to hear and focus on what moves/inspires me.

    Lovely musings here.


  2. Srinivas says:

    It’s been a while since I”ve stopped by here to comment, but rest assured I’ve been keeping up with everything you write. This one definitely spoke to me. I post pics from the beach when I surf or the mountains when I snowboard. And one of my friends always comments “I wish I had your life.” But to your point he sees the one side of it. He doesn’t see me living at home at the age of 34. He doesn’t see the challenge of making ends meet and the fact that three years have gone into all of this. I think you brought up another interesting point about timelines and deadlines. People seem to have deadlines for everything: make 100k by 27, gett married by 30, kids by 34, and if we kept at it we could add dead by 90 to that list. We get caught up in the world around us because of what we see. Very thought provoking read :)

  3. Wow… we’re totally on the same page at the same time. I wrote a new article on Saturday that closely echoes this sentiment, titled “A War On Weekends”.

    Be You!

  4. Amanda says:

    Very beautiful- I read every word. I think the pressure to keep up and fit in is growing more intense as we are all eager to be on social media and share the documentation of our lives. Hopefully I will take these powerful ideas with me into the days and weeks ahead, letting go of all the needless comparison and being mindful of all the unseen.

  5. Tanner says:

    This is a great post that speaks to something I think many creative and otherwise non-conformist folks struggle with. The idea that our motivations and thus our measures of success come from an internal place, an invisible place as you say, and not most often from some external validation. This is a very hard thing to work through, and is something that is probably more a continuous cycle than a one time task. I appreciate ths so much and will employ some of the tools you suggest the next time I find myself on a Saturday night thinking about things like this. Great work!

  6. Erin says:

    Beautiful from beginning to end. I find it difficult to explain the very feelings and thoughts you’ve outlined in this post. The need to re-charge after a long week, choosing to nourish my body (identifying with the need for movement and healthy foods) instead of a typical 20-/30- something Saturday night doesn’t align or comply with the norms of my partner nor my peers. Living life on my terms is the only way I can see being truly happy. I’ve come to make peace with passing on a night out when I crave time for myself (with my notebooks and Sharpie markers).

    That being said… the “typical nights” out are necessary from time-to-time. Dancing, laughing and getting out of my headspace, even if just for an evening.

  7. Kenny Cheng says:

    Hey Sarah, another brilliantly written post addressing a subject that I’ve wrestled with for some time. Your assessment of our delusions of social grandeur are spot on. Often I find that we post only what we want people to see, portraying the impression that we’d like people to have of us. I too am guilty of this (the odd time that I actually venture onto Facebook). I feel like by doing so, we condition ourselves to be not who we are, but who others want to see. Unfortunately, we end up catering to expectations beyond who we really are. And in the process, distort our true sense of self.

    As you’ve mentioned, we need to strip away all external expectations, all the white noise, and the distractions that pollute our true identities. I find that our behaviours are sometimes reinforced because we often get rewarded for this (by positive comments, feedback, “likes”, etc.). We essentially get what we are after–a sense of belonging, acceptance. I would go so far as to say it might even be considered an addiction in the classical sense, in which we are powerless to resist its temptations.

    As always, thank you for writing! :)

  8. Doing takes being present in the moment and working with confidence. We do change based upon how experiences bounce off us. On minding the gap: keep an eye on delivering on promises.

    When with others, do we seek connection, reassurance that our internal dialogue is on track, entertainment, etc. We see the world as we are, so wherever we go, as the saying goes, there we are.

  9. Sam Davidson says:

    So much goodness in this post…

    This month’s Atlantic talks about Facebook and loneliness and personality types. Well worth a read: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/8930/

  10. Andi-Roo says:

    I love the image you evoke that what we see isn’t all there is; & that sometimes what we see isn’t even representative of truth. It’s kind of mind-blowing to have it pointed out that there are curtains, & actions behind curtains, & curtains we can’t see, & curtains we don’t want to see, & curtains that are missing, & curtains that aren’t really there at all. Thank you for this philosophical and challenging post!

    Andi-Roo /// @theworld4realz

  11. Sarah,

    I absolutely love this post – it’s the kind that really makes you think and I had a couple “aha” moments during it. This actually inspired me to write about a recent experience I had where some of my family members judge me because they think all I do is party with friends, or go to concerts, or travel – and that I don’t have this normal life but I’m always go, go, go. You’d think that would be a good thing, but I think they look at it like I’m irresponsible – especially since they all have kids and I don’t. But just like you talked about – perception is NOT reality. I don’t post about the 5 books I read a month or the hours I spend in a coffee shop or the quiet nights at home with my husband cooking and relaxing. They just see the exciting parts.

    I am an extrovert and I’m very busy and I like posting photos of my travels and adventures – but it’s interesting to really look inside and ask myself WHY do I feel the need to post these pictures… is it purely just to share with my friends and family who are interested or am I putting on some type of show? As humans, I don’t think we really want to ask ourselves those types of questions, but I am starting to wonder about my motives.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post! :)

  12. Ralph says:

    Hey Sarah, wow!

    Beautifully written and poignant to our life and times. For a moment there I was wondering where you were going but I think you are more well-grounded that most. The fact that you actualize the moments in your life and don’t feel the urge to publicise every activity shows some real depth. Our, by our I mean modern civilization, obsession with spewing every moment into the social media platform is why the valuation of those companies is so overwhelming.

    One of the things I love about blogging is the opportunity to share your craft, ideas and thoughts in a way that is slower and more deliberate. Thoughtful and through learning. It takes time to get better and that is what seems to be the obsession of the current age. The lack of it and the need to be everywhere all the time. And as a result there is no value created; only empty digital signatures.

    Loved this post. Epic.

  13. Rob says:

    The single most-repeated piece of advice I give my daughter: normal is boring. Wonderful piece, Sarah. Listening to that inner voice is obviously paying dividends.

  14. Aatash says:

    I really like this.

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  18. Ian says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Great message and one I’ve only recently been working on internalizing. I’m just now, after years of essentially having given up, coming back to trying to learn, do, achieve again, and care. I still carry a lot of shame around my years of apathy. I’ve finally learned to not believe everyone’s life is better than mine based on their social media updates (the part I’m still working on is feeling like everyone else is more important than I am- so I still put others ahead of myself but am trying to figure out what *I* want now). Anyhow, back to my night in- I guess this is an introverted recharge day for me, but hopefully I’ll get a few things done before going to bed tonight.

    • Sarah says:

      Don’t forget to have love for yourself… we are often kind to others, but forget to give the same grace and kindness to ourselves… for everything you do right, or try, or attempt–give yourself an internal “good job.” :)