The Human Condition:

The Curse of Subjectivity – May 1, 2016

Personal perspective

First, as preface, let me say that I had a wonderful childhood. I had great parents, a good elder brother, and a wonderful and funny extended family. I wanted for nothing growing up, because my parents filled our home with books and music, took us to museums, had boats and taught me to love the water, and—my father being a mechanical engineer and my mother a landscape architect—filled my young life with interesting questions, gadgets, and insights. I had no doubt that my parents loved and supported me … except, of course, when I hated them and assumed they hated me—but every child hates the world that at some point.

Still, I was raised in the 1950s by parents who had gone through the rigors of the Great Depression and then World War II. Even though we were in the glorious decade of America’s emergence as a superpower and, compared to every other country, wealthy beyond belief, it was not a time for coddling children. The Victorian adage “children should be seen and not heard” was still in effect, at least in our household. So my brother and I were expected to go along on all family outings, sit quietly in the backseat, and not bother the grownups. We were to be respectful to all adults. Our childish opinions might be heard, with a smile, as far as the second or third sentence, then dismissed with a pat on the head. Our heartfelt desires were tolerated only on our birthdays and Christmas morning. Our deepest fears were explained away with reason and witheringly cold logic. Our inconsolable tantrums were simply not tolerated.

It was still a time when a measure of adversity was considered good for the soul as well as the body. My mother used to say that every child must eat a peck of dirt, because she understood instinctively that exposure to the world’s microbes was good for the developing immune system. She was unfazed and practical about scraped knees and cut fingers, knowing that childhood was a rough-and-tumble experience. My parents didn’t mind if I went out to play after dinner, because they trusted I would be home before full dark. They knew that shielding a child from the world was a bad way to grow up. They also knew that getting everything I wanted was bad for character development: I had to do chores to earn my allowance, and it was—by design—never enough to buy all that I desired. I had to save, plan, make choices, and know that some wants would go forever unfilled.

Mine was not a cold household, but personal emotions and feelings never really entered into the discussion. I was supposed to get up and go to school, rain or snow, hot or cold, whether I felt like it to or not.1 I was supposed to do my chores whether I liked them or not. If I asked to be excused from regular housework or the common courtesies of setting and clearing the table, I had better be delirious and running a fever—or better yet unconscious. Being awake and ambulatory meant you did your chores, your homework, your duty. “I don’t want to” was not a strong argument in our house.

We also weren’t encouraged to take things personally or see ourselves in personal terms. My parents considered it déclassé2 to ask for special favors or to expect special treatment. To assume that one was part of a particular group or class, for good or ill, and marked for particular attention, either favor or scorn, was to separate oneself from the vast community of unremarked individuals, all democratic equals, who deserved our generalized respect, public courtesy, and—within limits—our polite trust. Everyone encountered in their world was treated as a lady or gentleman—that is, expected to behave well, extended the proper courtesy, and offered a helping hand in need—unless and until he or she proved otherwise.

If I had to sum up my parents’ attitude toward the world—and the attitude they expected me to adopt in growing up—it would have been: “This isn’t about you.” That is, the world doesn’t care about me. Life doesn’t owe me anything.3 Other people are not really concerned about my situation, my prospects, and my feelings, one way or another. I am not fundamentally different from that vast community of unremarked individuals.

That is a tough lesson to learn, but it has served me well. First, it has made me relatively immune to, if not suspicious of, personal praise. If someone goes out of his or her way to praise and admire me, especially in a situation where the comment was not conspicuously earned, I know to expect some angle, some purpose that will work to that other person’s benefit and not mine. I know what I have achieved, and it is my judgment which matters, not the world’s or anyone else’s.

Second, the lesson has left me relatively insensitive to insult, if not exactly tough-skinned. If someone makes a general observation about a particular class or type of individual, or a characteristic mannerism or action, or some other comment meant to arouse anger and ill feelings, I tend to ignore it, because I don’t stop to think the comment is about me. I don’t see myself as a member of any special class or group, for good or ill. I don’t fly little flags on my person that distinguish me from those around me. I slide through insults as one of those unremarked individuals, a gentleman, worthy of and assuming the world’s generalized respect.

Third, the lesson has made me dutiful in my relationships. Since “this isn’t about me,” I treat my work, my personal obligations, and my commitments as foremost in my life and matters of personal honor. For forty years, I went to the office every day, prepared to work to my physical and mental limits,4 cope with problems as they arose, and keep moving forward, regardless of how I felt about any of it. The idea of taking, as some of my coworkers would say, “a mental health day” never entered into my thinking. If I was conscious and ambulatory, I went to work and did my best. Duty before feelings was my approach, learned at my mother’s knee.

The gift my parents gave me was an outward focus. I was trained to observe the world objectively, on its own terms, and make the best of it that I could. It was not my place to interpret everything I saw subjectively—in terms of my feelings, my likes and dislikes, or my sense of myself.5 The world is a given, complete in and of itself, and not a subjective reality that I or anyone else can control.

To be raised otherwise as a child is to see the world as revolving around yourself and your feelings. This is a kind of crippling, a lack of development in a person’s psychological immune system, and a lack of sufficient inner personal resources to cope with whatever comes next. Taken to extremes, it can make you distasteful, untrustworthy, and vulnerable to others.

1. Of course, living in New England, we had “snow days,” when the roads were too treacherous to travel and public schools were closed. After a storm the night before, we children would listen breathlessly to the morning news to see if our town had announced no school that day. Hooray! And we never calculated that for every day school was closed in winter, the school year was extended one more day into summer. But, at that age, June was in the far distant future.

2. A word they never used, although they certainly knew its meaning. To them, standing out, making demands, or claiming for yourself some kind of special standing was a proof of personal insecurity, perhaps of bad intentions, and likely of possessing insufficient personal resources. To them, capable people paid their own way, met adversity with equanimity, and never complained. My parents would have appreciated the attitude of Duke Leto Atreides in Dune: “Let us not rail about justice as long as we have arms and the freedom to use them.”

3. “The world doesn’t owe you a living” was one of my father’s favorite sayings. And by that he didn’t just mean that the world—the community, the country at large, and the economy—had no business paying me a stipend or an unearned income. That much went without saying. He meant that the world had no place reserved for me: no expectation of a job, a ready niche, or a set of opportunities waiting for me to step into. If I wanted to make my way in the world, I would have to scramble, to learn skills I could sell, to make myself good at something the world needed, and still guard myself and my household against theft, misfortune, and economic downturn. Or as the old American catchphrase put it, when the colonists turned their pigs loose to forage in the forest: “Root, hog, or die.”

4. A supervisor once said Parkinson’s Law—that work expands to fill the time available—never seemed to apply to me. I always tried to do my assigned work with dispatch and then, usually, looked around for more.

5. Of course, I have a sense of self—a rather strong one—but it is not the filter through which I see the world. It is the measure I use to mark my own actions and achievements. I am the judge of me, while other people have their own place with their own rules and values.