In the United States, 33 percent of high-school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives; 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college; 57 percent of new books are not read to completion; 70 percent of adults have not been in a bookstore in the past five years; and 80 percent of families did not buy or read a book in the past year. So, who would want to read Wannabe Distance God, especially considering that over two million new book titles and revised editions are published worldwide every year?
Publishing removed the last veil from my eyes. I clearly saw how delusional I had been. Reading and writing and publishing and distance running were my things, but they were hardly everybody’s things. I saw that I had been self-centered the whole time, believing that everybody should like what I liked and should pay attention to the same things as I did. When I looked around with new eyes, I realized, Hmm, we are all self-centered. If we are successfully taking care of ourselves, we are necessarily selfish to a large extent. I was ridiculous and self-centered to have taken it personally that others were merely taking care of themselves, too, and naturally had little interest in me.
Before publication, I had a distorted understanding of how humans perceive life, how limited time is for all of us, and how we are mostly only aware of those closest to us in our Levels of Intimacy. The people who get our attention are those who help us manage our day-to-day lives to survive and thrive, the people we see. That just makes sense.
When I was younger, I didn’t receive the attention I needed in my family of origin, so I concluded that I needed to be more attractive, faster, wilder, funnier, better educated, or richer. But none of that ever mattered; people might care about those things regarding themselves, but they didn’t care about those things regarding me. They cared how others treated them, what they got out of it, and how they were positively reinforced, but they didn’t have time to care about my interests and me. I didn’t know what the proper balance between self-care and caring for others was because I was raised “every dog for himself.” I didn’t understand that if I didn’t get what I needed from my family of origin, it would never be about me, regardless of how well I performed or what I collected, until I added the right person in my level 2 spouse or significant other. That’s why the legalistic and ritualistic nature of marriage is accentuated: it is indeed a very big deal to have the right person—the person you can trust explicitly—there, and you can give each other as much attention as you each need.
We are high-functioning mammals living within the constraints of our senses, brain function, time, and space. Our toilet-paper tubes and personal needs limit us. We must attend to ourselves and to those closest to us who reinforce us and help us to survive physically and emotionally and only later, perhaps, psychologically and spiritually. I needed to recognize this and accept it to achieve homeostasis—equilibrium—to make my internal conflict disappear and thus to feel better with the dissolution of my delusion of deserving more attention. I simply needed to embrace what was true. We truly are alone, but by implementing Levels of Intimacy, we don’t need to be.
Why did it take me so long to awaken to this reality? Now I hear that at twenty, we’re worried about what other people think about us; at forty, we don’t care what they think of us; and at sixty, we realize that they were never thinking about us at all. Am I that predictable? I am, after all, writing this on the cusp of sixty. Am I that unaware? What am I missing today?
Everybody prefers to look at his or her own reflection in the so-called “river of life.” But in the final analysis, we’re preening and impression managing mostly for ourselves, to feel better about ourselves. Attracting attention is meaningless; it’s mostly for silly ego, and it’s especially ignorant once we’ve worked our way far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy. Celebrities have some unique issues and some common issues that get overblown, but they are not happier than we are. The normal curve falls on them as well. In general, people don’t notice us normal people—not for long, anyway—and they generally don’t care about us unless there’s something in it for them. It’s supposed to be that way because it’s normal. What’s not normal is to take offense or expect more.
Now I’m normal in that way, too.
I suppose I could say that the problem is that mammals want to be reinforced and escape punishment. But that is not really a problem—it’s evolutionarily adaptive, and it works. To become cynical is a sort of death; to transcend that cynicism is a sort of rebirth. Our rebirth is to recognize what is, accept what is, and then use our huge frontal lobes to rise above self-centeredness and selfishness when appropriate, because that’s good for individuals as well as for societies. Plus, we usually have to give to receive, which is selfish even when we’re trying to act unselfishly. Remember the theory of reciprocity.
The world is so big. There are over seven billion of us alive…and over seven billion of us dead who left interesting stuff behind. There are so many things to do and so many people clambering for our attention. The communications revolution has made the smorgasbord of human awesomeness to enjoy even vaster and faster, as is the cascade of human brutishness, but we don’t have more time to pay attention to it all. Our choices are overwhelming unless we look through that toilet-paper tube for focus, so even the toilet-paper tube is good. It also helps determine where the people in our lives fit in our Levels of Intimacy. In the end, we will be forgotten. Eventually, all will be forgotten, and then all will be vaporized. So, here, in the present, who are the few whom we will spend our limited time with; to whom will we point that toilet-paper tube and pay attention intently? Whom will we trust? Whom will we allow close to our hearts? Whom will we commit to love and allow into our inner levels?
This means that when we offer ourselves, our art, to the world, we should do it for our own growth and expression and not expect the world to notice, care, or have time for it; we should do it anyway because we care, and that matters to us, to our level 1. And that is enough. We matter, even if just to ourselves (although I strongly recommend that you have at least one other person to whom you are committed and who is committed to you, and to be in each other’s level 2). For me, to put myself out there, naked and vulnerable in my writing, was scarier than writing fiction. It was risky. But the payoff was great. Now I see that the lesson was the same as with distance running: the journey was always the point, not where I finished in a race or the publication of a book. The struggle wasn’t bad; it was the point. The unpublished present wasn’t wasted time; it was all that existed and what mattered most. Being a novelist, even if only in my own mind, was like being a wannabe distance god; the quest was worth it. It added quality to my life. It matters to me that I tried, that I enjoyed writing all along, and it enriched my life, made me more self-aware and aware of others. Finding my voice was more important than being heard. The quest to publish was more important than publishing. Letting go was more important than attaining. Learning to love ourselves enough to be authentic is more important than any of the phony chameleon manifestations through which we seek to be loved.
Are the philosophers right, then? Is life best lived without ego? We need to let go of the future (which doesn’t exist), the past (which doesn’t exist), and embrace the present, which is all we have. Our big brains cause us to carry our past baggage and shame and to imagine our future as dangerous. We create self-legends that we can live with and stay safe. We change colors. We should decrease the impression managing and know that being imperfect doesn’t mean being inadequate. We can be vulnerable and safe by understanding our sameness and setting appropriate boundaries.
So, it’s been a lifelong journey to become more authentic; I can see that now. It’s been an unfolding, if you will. There were lessons to learn, experiences to collect, and growth to endure. I suppose the hard times somehow go down easier, thinking about it that way. But I remember the poorer versions of myself, sometimes with shame and other times with a smirk. It’s as if I’ve awakened. Ah-ha, I say. Now I get it. I’m awake for the first time. Just forget all that silliness that came before.
I’m still not convinced that I get it. I mean, not totally. There’s always something. Can we ever get to the end, to self-actualization, or is it a perpetual coming of age? We are forever psychological children experiencing an endless series of insights. Or not. Maybe personal growth is a luxury, one that fortunate life circumstances, the right kind of pain, other people who grant us grace, and a slew of near misses facilitates. Don’t we start out genetically programmed and mostly normal until we experience the wounding of life, and then we set about picking at our own scabs and wounding each other? We allow others to convince us that we’re defective, not realizing that they are acting out their own pain and ignorance. Still, their voices stay in our heads and in our emotions and become our own. We carry on even after they leave us, and we spend our lives compensating and acting like chameleons. Suppose, instead, we assume that we were born lovable and still are? Suppose we take on different roles depending on the job at hand but never change color and are always authentic? Being emotionally balanced is part of overall wellness, which means having clear boundaries between levels and having the right people at each level. If we conclude that we aren’t good enough for others to truly know us and we display only a chameleon manifestation, then our emotional intimacy needs will not be met. These boundaries don’t preclude loving one another at every level. We can be both loving and have good boundaries.
I didn’t understand all this authenticity and Levels of Intimacy when I was younger. I think that I get it now. But I keep discovering new truths. Sometimes, it’s stuff that everyone else already seems to know, and sometimes it’s rarer stuff that I stumble upon. It’d be incredibly ignorant and arrogant of me to imply that I’ve somehow arrived anywhere other than at a mile marker. When will I have the next humbling insight? I can say that at least I’m different than I was. I’ve made better sense of my past. I wish to remember and feel grateful for the struggle and the lessons because they’ve led me to a fulfilling present infused with hope.
I accept that I’m a growing organism—though my exterior is slowly declining, at least I’m evolving psychologically. I see a new way. Sometimes I see people for the first time, even though I’ve known them for years. Sometimes they’ve changed, and sometimes I’ve changed. Sometimes I learn things that should’ve been obvious but eluded my awareness for a lifetime. When I misbehaved as a youth, I never thought that I was a bad person, and I was insulted when others treated me as such. Remember, I thought I was being special. We all need sound guidance. We do not need to be attacked or rejected. We should love each other enough to be mentors and role models. When humans look beneath each other’s chameleon manifestations and truly connect, regardless of age, it facilitates growth in both people—but especially in the person who desperately needs to be understood. Don’t most of us strive to be someone accepted and good and better? Shedding our chameleon colors and becoming authentic facilitates this and models it for fearful others.
I don’t believe that what I see on social media is the whole story, either—it’s merely the impression people want to make publicly, but it has placed the Chameleon Complex more squarely in our faces. It’s surprising how many people present themselves as close to perfect but feel rotten inside. What color do they take on? There are countless ways to hide ourselves. Many people believe what the impression managers post, and then they feel horrible about themselves for not living up to the images they see. Take it from an insider: a bit of skepticism makes sense. Look deeper; all is not as it seems.
The cycle continues. Then it goes down generations.