Here’s one from the life observation pile.
In high school I had the good fortune to have very silly friends. We’d do silly things like make loud noises, strange movies (thanks Mr. Reinstein) or sing silly songs, often in the cafeteria for others to see. And I quickly learned a surprising lesson: when you behave oddly on purpose, other people feel more embarrassed than you do. They don’t know how to respond, so they mostly pretend not to see or hear you. We’d do wild and crazy things, and instead of being picked on or laughed at, people simply left us alone.
This was wonderfully liberating. I learned how being bold, even if silly or bizarre, tends to put people on their heels.
But now as an adult I find this distressing. I know all things equal most will pretend to be indifferent, even if, in their hearts they’re curious about what you are doing and why.
Case in point: Yesterday I was in Pike Place Market. Walking up post alley after lunch, there was a series of buskers (street musicians). Each one with a guitar, or a banjo, singing their hearts out. Many of them were very good. So I stopped at each one to listen. And as I did, pleased with my cheap front row seat, I couldn’t help but notice all the people walking past, who pretended I and the buskers weren’t even there.
It seemed bizarre someone performing, on the street, putting their heart into something by putting it out into the world, garnered almost no reaction to most who walked past. They gave more attention to the advertisements, the street signs, the backs of the people in front of them, then real live musicians providing something unique and alive. It’s odd how we can watch 5 hours of television a day, complaining about how bad and unreal much of it is (especially the reality shows), and yet walk past musicians without even a momentary pause to absorb the vibe they are making. Forget for a moment even giving them money – I mean even acknowledging with a glance, or a pause, that they are there, which is something in and of itself given how few do it.
And as I stood there, I started to feel weird. Why am I the only one listening? Even though I knew it was right in the sense this is something alive and real and I can spare at least 30 seconds for that – it felt weird simply because no one else was doing it. Had there been a crowd around any one of these buskers, more people would stop to listen, simply because they could do it without having to stand out.
It was amazing how we can be so indifferent – until I realized I’m likely just as indifferent myself, it’s just to different things. And those things are ones I don’t notice anymore, so I don’t notice not noticing them. It’s a trap. What else am I missing that I should be attentive to, I wondered? And can I answer that question alone?
And there’s this bigger idea, that interesting stuff is everywhere all the time if you open your eyes to it. Teresa Brazen made this short, simple, video a year ago, and it’s stuck with me since. I thought about it after listening to the busker, asking myself – couldn’t that same street have been interesting if I had chosen to be patient enough to make it so?
I have this theory called the challenge of indifference. As we grow up, we’re taught self-control and how to focus ourselves, tuning out things that are ‘wrong’, or ‘juvenile’ or ‘wastes of time’. We become indifferent to the whims of the child mind, trading it in for suits and resumes, the tools of success in the adult world. But success becomes boring. For most knowledge worker types, success is abstract. We move stuff around we can’t hold in our hands, or get paid to do boring stuff for people who never meet and don’t really even like.
The challenge then, as an adult, once you’ve found your career, or a partner, and settled down, is to undo indifference. as that’s where (some kinds of) happiness is: in paying attention in the ways we did when things were new, and were young enough not to judge everything so quickly. We all still have that little voice in our heads that whispers “this is cool” or “this is different” or even “wait – what is this? lets see”, but it’s pounded into submission by the stodgy, gruff, and stronger rational adult voice we’ve depended on to get us the external things we’ve chased most of our lives.
I know many people fundamentally bored or frustrated with (parts of) their lives and have been for some time. And they’re surprised they feel this way – after all, they’re successful, more or less. They expected that fact to be enough to make them happy the rest of their lives, as that’s the mythical bargain many of us learn growing up . But we’re never told that success often demands an indifference to the wonders of the real, or the magic of the ridiculous. I was deeply effected by films like Fight Club and American Beauty, in part because they attack the middle-class American notion of success by showing how empty a “successful” life can be and how bad we are at seeing how we created that emptiness ourselves, and can only fix it ourselves, from the inside out. If years ago we shed the natural awe we should have all sorts of things, especially those unafraid to live primarily for their passions, like street musicians, or chefs, or craftsmen of any kind do – we forget the difference between seeing things for what they are instead of what we’ve been told, or told ourselves, they’re supposed to be.
Am I on to something? Or should I shut up and move along?
I’m trying to work on this myself. If you are too, let me know how you’re doing it.
(Photo credit: jiff89)