(Impromptu Michael Jackson Week continues apace!)
I’d be surprised to learn that there was someone out there who has never thought “I wonder if other people see/feel things the way I do?” Some things are easier than others to come to a conclusion on. I mean, we can all look at a chicken and agree on its inherent chickenness (chickenity?): the beak, the beady eyes, the feathers, the sharp talons – yep, it’s a chicken! We can even take into account the different varieties of chickens and know that a Rhode Island Red is just as much a chicken as an Appenzell Pointed Hood Hen (which also doubles as a member of an 80s glam rock group).
But what about colors? Sure, there’s a hexadecimal notation for every color – #6e7b67 is one of the greens that makes up the background to this site, for instance – but there’s no guarantee that the way I see #6e7b67 is the same way you see #6e7b67.
And then there’s taste. Some people profess to like broccoli. I do not. I like black licorice, while Connor does not. Are we tasting the same thing? Chemical breakdown would tell us that, yes, it’s producing the same tastes for different people, so the difference is elsewhere. Broccoli’s taste mixture of grass and nastiness to me is to other people a … well, I don’t know exactly what. No one’s ever really explained to me why they like broccoli. “Because it’s good for you” is not a description of taste.
So our brains are wired differently. Is it any wonder, then, that we might think that we don’t feel things the same way as others? I get struck with this one the most when someone relates an experience they had and another listener tears up while I’m thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I realize that life experiences up to that point may cause one person to react differently than another person to a particular instance, but aren’t there universal situations that we can all agree on, an emotional chicken, as it were?
From there it’s a pretty short jump to “Do I feel everything differently from other people? Am I a psychopath, able to function in society but not really responding to it, or responding correctly?” I’ve expressed this “I don’t think I feel things like other people” to a couple of different friends and got this surprising answer from them both: “I’ve wondered the same thing about myself.” Strangely enough, that’s both an answer and a non-answer at the same time. They haven’t really addressed my fear, but in saying that they’ve had the same thoughts, it tells me that I do have the same thoughts as others.
We’re not Borg, nor are we telepathic. There is no way for us to know what another person is thinking or feeling unless they tell us. Even trying to read another person through body language or actions gets filtered by what’s going on in our own heads and is therefore also unreliable. Muddying the waters further is the fact that what we learn about one person’s emotions and feelings doesn’t apply to another person. There’s no emotional template and people can’t be described by neat little checklists, no matter how much we wish they could be.
I firmly believe that I am in charge of how I feel. My thoughts, whether out of habit or out of instinct or whatever else, make me feel certain ways about certain events. Why am I stressed? Because of a belief system in my head that tells me I’ll be in trouble if I don’t get everything done or someone will be unhappy with me or that I just won’t be able to do things I want to do until the list of things I have to do gets done. But just because I’m in charge of how I feel doesn’t mean I understand it. Why do I tear up at seeing a Ninja Turtle awaken from a semi-coma but my main thought when faced with real-life tragedies in the lives of others is “I’m not sure what to do here”?
There’s an application on Facebook called “My Personality” that lets you rate yourself by answering questions and then lets you ask your friends to rate you anonymously. It’s an interesting look at the discrepancy between how I see me and how others see me. Currently it has this to say:
You think you have antisocial personality disorder
Everyone else is a tool for your pleasure. They have no rights, and you disregard their laws. You are aggressive when it suits you, you lie when it suits you, and your promises mean nothing. You have no remorse.
Your friends think you have avoidant personality disorder
You have an extreme fear of the potential negative opinions of other people and that leads you to avoid social situations altogether. You feel inferior to other people and expect them to reject you. The worst thing that could possibly happen is being embarrassed in front of all of your friends.
The disclaimer, of course, says “Please note: It is extremely unlikely that a personality disorder is actually present, this is just for fun!” Some fun, eh? I sound like the worst sort of person! And the fact that my friends don’t see me as quite as bad just tells me that I’ve somehow fooled them all.
Yes, I know enough to not put a whole lot of faith into a Facebook app. My point is that difference between self-perception and public perception. If we’re not even displaying to others what we feel we are, how can we know that others are? In fact, shouldn’t that pretty much guarantee that they aren’t?
Humanity is some kind of deal, isn’t it? Infinitely interesting and scary and boggling. It’s a good thing we’ve got some things we know we can agree on, and maybe that’s why chickens were created alongside us.