+ weekly recs
Marc Chagall, Maries au village
I’ve been thinking about an old Slate Star Codex post about the extent to which people’s personalities, behaviors, demeanors dictate the world they live in. He starts the post by describing how he and a fellow psychiatrist-in-training got the same types of cases, and practiced the same type of same therapy, but had completely different experiences with patients: “In particular, all her patients had dramatic emotional meltdowns, and all my patients gave calm and considered analyses of their problems, as if they were lecturing on a particularly boring episode from 19th-century Norwegian history.”
He realized that this wasn’t a coincidence—that differences in their personalities led to patients reacting in drastically different ways.
As a child I spent a lot of time thinking about this. Why were some kids popular even though they weren’t conventionally attractive, while some kids who were perfectly normal-looking were ostracized? It was about clothes, and family background, but I could tell it was also about more than that. It was about how they spoke, and who they were. It was about social intelligence. It was about energy.
When we see the picture of the cult leaders and famous criminals, we are often surprised. They always look so normal. Not hot enough to be running a sex cult. Too handsome and well-spoken to be a murderer. All this to say that the things that dictate how people affect others are not what we assume them to be.
It’s easy to be deceived by people’s origin stories. Like Murakami, who lay down in a baseball stadium one day after selling a jazz bar and decided to write a book. Like Ottessa Moshfegh, who read The 90 Day Novel and thought, I can do that. The moral of their stories is not, That’s so relatable. It’s that people who do abnormal things tend to be extremely abnormal in every way, and that’s not always conveyed by an anecdote. That’s why I like to read biographies—you need extreme detail to understand how alien other people are.
Last week L and I talked about how some people in Silicon Valley like to extract information from others. They’re always looking for an answer to a question. The value you offer them is in the quality of your answer, and how many good answers you have to give.
It’s always been hard for me to relate to people like this. I like information as much as the next girl, but I operate primarily in the world of emotions. I guess you could say I pick up a lot from people’s facial expressions or their body language, but I literally couldn’t describe to you what I’m noticing with any specificity. It’s more that I feel things about people, and they often turn out to be true. Sometimes I can feel what someone’s going to do before they can—breakups, makeups, falling in love, quitting a job. How much someone loves someone else.
I’ve been able to do this for a long time, so it’s hard to say how useful this skill is. I think I would probably have a very different life without it. It makes many relationships easy, fluid. It makes me comfortable around most people, all the time. I pay less attention to external things, and more attention to—see, I can’t describe it—the energy people give off, their emotions? Something like that.
The flip side to this is that I have always been acutely sensitive. I can’t relax and I often can’t sleep. I notice fabric, skin, paint, light. I instantly break out in a rash when I’m upset. The sensitivity can feel like a punishment, but the sensitivity is also the point. My capacity for pain enables my capacity for joy.
From Nuar Alsadir’s Animal Joy:
Feeling is body driven, whereas thinking, according to Bion, is “called into existence to cope with thoughts.” He explains this counterintuitive precept through a scenario involving a hungry infant who yearns for the breast to suddenly materialize and satisfy its need. When the infant feels hunger and expects the breast, but no breast turns up—or expects a smile and only the lips turn up—instead of the yearned-for satisfaction, it feels frustration which then leads to a thought (The breast is not there). The “development of an ability to think,” in Bion’s words, occurs as a way of coping with the thoughts that crystallize from frustrated feelings: in philosopher Emil Cioran’s terms, “Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation.” With the breast—or its metonym—in the mouth, however, there’s no need for thinking. You are free to feel.
Or, as poet E. E. Cummings has it, “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.”
When I meet people who are exceptionally good at thinking I feel so sad for them. So many thwarted sensations.
From the Slate Star Codex post: Finally, some people have personalities or styles of social interaction that unconsciously compel a certain response from their listeners. Call these “niceness fields” or “meanness fields” or whatever: some people are the sort who – if they became psychotherapists – would have patients who constantly suffered dramatic emotional meltdowns, and others’ patients would calmly discuss their problems.
My friends often live in very different worlds then I do, but there’s some overlap (we are all friends, after all). Some of them are math geniuses. Some are amazing salespeople (I call this salesbrain). Some of them are great at throwing parties, and some of them constantly get into arguments. I sometimes cannot believe things that happen to them, and they cannot believe the things that happen to me.
I have a friend who constantly goes around asking for things. He probably asks for 20 things a day. Can I park here? Can I get extra bread for the soup? Could we meet Friday instead of Thursday? He asks for small things, but he also asks for big things. And he gets rejected a lot, but he also gets much of what he wants, because he asks all the time.
Can you imagine living like that? It’s so different from how I operate, and no wonder my life looks different from his. We often don’t know how much other people’s interactions with the world differ from our own. My partner might behave one way to me, but totally differently at work. My friend might tell me, “This guy was a jerk to me,” but I actually have no idea what kind of conversations they had, what their interactions were like. The insight we have is pretty limited—we don’t actually see how other people behave. We make assumptions that they’re just like us, but we’re often wrong.
I believe in the universality of the human experience. You know the line: I am human. Nothing human is alien to me. D used to always say that he likes people in the abstract, not necessarily the particular instantiations of them. But I am endlessly interested in specific people. I want to know everything about them and there is no point to it. I don’t need to use people as material, and I don’t share their secrets—I just want to know. In many ways I feel similar to everyone I know—we have the same base emotions! Our lives are characterized by the set of experiences—love, birth, death, greed, thrill, boredom, grief. We have the same animal bodies. Aren’t we all the same?
But we also live in different worlds. I have to remember that. Sometimes I’ll tell a friend an anecdote and look over at them, like, can’t you relate? And they’ll laugh, because they can’t relate whatsoever. That is the unbridgeable gulf between each and every person.