Another 37, Day 15
Fear serves an important evolutionary function. Some things deserved to be feared, like Godzilla. If Godzilla shows up in your neighborhood and you aren’t at least a little scared, that will probably be a very bad day for you. On the other hand, just like a craving for beer-battered bacon wings, our modern brains are very stupid about knowing when to use this particular tool.
I’m scared of a lot of things because I’m a regular person. I don’t like either of these facts, but there you are. Also Spider-man is scared of a lot of things and he’s an extra-awesome person, so at least I’m in good company. Many of the things I’m scared of are quite reasonable. Like the thing from It Follows, and also sea monsters. Neither of these are unlikely to come up in my life (or so I keep telling myself), but if they did they’d be genuine threats.
So even though imagining how utterly helpless I would be in the middle of the ocean with a giant tentacled beast I couldn’t see that wanted to eat my bone marrow swimming beneath me is definitely a waste of my damn time, I’m still putting in the “reasonable fear” pile. That gives you a lot of information about the other, much larger pile. One of the things I am unreasonably afraid of these days is Twitter.
I really should join Twitter, since it’s currently still an important platform for writers and for networking in all of those fields and circles I want to get involved in if I can ever get off my ass. Some of those circles I’m already involved in, but I have limited exposure because I don’t have a Twitter account. Plus, it looks like mild fun, and I think it would help me check Facebook less often.
But I haven’t gotten one, because it scares me. This is not terrifying, looking-the-basilisk-in-the-eye kind of fear. It’s much milder. Just enough for me to put it off. And I have very good reasons for being afraid. Very good reasons that are also a pile of crap.
The more psychology books I read the more I think that human cognition is a set of extremely capable controls with staggeringly fiddly calibrations, like Surgeon Simulator. Most of the more usual kinds of neuroses are just like fear: useful mental features with the dials turned up too high or too low.
In a highly rigorous study that I conducted whenever I thought about it around my friends and acquaintances, I found that people who are punctual are always nervous about being punctual. You can’t be consistently on time to things unless being late makes you uncomfortable. There is no intrinsic reason this should be the case. It’s easy to imagine a person who manages their time carefully such that they always leave when they need to and take traffic into account, but who also stays calm and detached about it. But I’ve never met one.
Likewise, people are almost always either too confident or not confident enough. Almost everyone who doesn’t compulsively worry about whether or not they have their keys on them will, from time to time, lock their keys in their car. You might only worry about this a little and still be consistent. If so, good for you! This is not one of your particular neuroses. But there’s no reason you should have to worry at all; it’d be easy for Reed Richards to create a robot who never locked her keys in her car but also didn’t feel any particular way about it. He probably wouldn’t since robots in superhero fiction always seem to have emotions for some reason, but the fact remains that he could.
But, alas, the human brain wasn’t designed by Reed Richards. More like, say, Egghead. We aren’t robots. We are more like a blindfolded person walking through a room full of obstacles, assisted by sighted people who can only communicate with us by slapping our faces if we get too close to the buzz saw.
Example: you see a dress that you like in the store that you’d really like to buy, so you check the price tag. It says $1900. Chances are, your brain doesn’t calmly say, “Oh, that’s out of my price range. I’ll move on.” It’s much more likely to be something like, “Gah! Nineteen hundred dollars? Jesus fucking Christ! I’m not selling a kidney to Donald Trump for this damn thing! That dress made of my neighbor’s curtains will have to be good enough. I wonder if they’ve changed the code on their security system.”
There’s no reason to react that strongly in order to change behavior. Or rather, there probably is, because the urge to buy a dress you like is also badly calibrated. You might buy it for $200 even though that means another month of plankton-flavored ramen for dinner. The image of how damn sexy you’ll be in that dress just releases too much dopamine to resist. Lucky for you and your plankton-oriented future your grandmother was part blue whale.
I don’t want to join Twitter because I think it’ll make me look like a jackass. We are way, way past the time when anyone who wanted a Twitter account should have already gotten one. I might as well start wearing parachute pants—which by the way are crazy comfortable. I’m afraid people will judge me. No, that’s not it. I’m afraid people will identify me. Most people like being put into categories to some extent. I’m a Star Trek Fan. I’m a South Carolina Conservative. I’m a member of the Cherokee Nation. You get the idea.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this; being part of a group or a label gives people a sense of belonging. But my brain doesn’t work that way. Oh, I love to belong as much as anyone, but I want to be unique. In a less charitable interpretation, I want to be seen as being unique. As much as I life Firefly I’d never wear a Firefly shirt because people might identify me as a Firefly fan, and make all sorts of assumptions. For some reason that doesn’t make any sense to anyone but me (also not to me) that terrifies me. It’s a form of social anxiety, and I’ve never met anyone else with this precise flavor.
The thing is, I mostly don’t have social anxiety. I don’t even mind looking like a jackass. In fact, I would say that on balance I deliberately make myself look like a jackass more often than 99% of the population. But certain things trigger it. Being seen as part of a thing that people are collectively doing is the biggest, and it often paralyzes my ability to change. It’s why it took me so long to get a cell phone, why I put off joining Facebook, and why for years I always waited until I looked like a homeless man-goat before I cut my hair. That last part hasn’t actually improved, it’s just that I shave my head now and so when I inevitably put it off I just look like a balding guy with short hair. I think it’s an improvement.
Society is more and more tolerant of the level of neuroses that are big enough or defined enough for doctors to diagnose. I say more tolerant, but obviously there is still plenty of social stigma in being depressed or anxious or taking medication for anything without obvious physical symptoms. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten better.
But there’s a lot less sympathy for the harder-to-pinpoint conditions that still screw up our lives. The kind of bluntness about them that I’m exhibiting in this article in talking about my neuroses is comparatively rare. There are pretty good reasons for this. We need to take neuroses and psychoses into account, but at the same time we also need to have a function society, and ultimately people need to get back to work.
I do think we’d be collectively healthier if we recognized how much we are defined by the ill-tuning of our psychological drives, but we’d have to find the happy medium between coddling everyone and insisting we all man up and ignore the problems that define us. As with individual human cognition, society-level calibration is a bitch.
Meanwhile, I need to recognize that I’m already a jackass, that people are already judging me, and get a Twitter account. It’s so easy.
It makes me nervous to even say it.