Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just How Similar Are We?

Writers write for different reasons. Most of us, if pressed for an answer, will say we can't not write. It's like exhaling; we must do it.

I write to make sense of my world. I've been writing since I was a young girl, when it became clear to me that there wasn't a lot of logic or predictability or even, sometimes, sanity, in my world. I wrote poetry and journal entries. As a tween, I suspected my mom was reading my diary, so I wrote a series of, shall we say, colorful entries regarding boys. Total fabrications, mind you, but it was the only surefire way I could tell if she was indeed invading my privacy. I came home from school one day to have my face slapped, hard. Yep. She was reading my diary.

At any rate, writing helps me think through both the tedious and the monumental. It allows me to cope, escape, confront. As an adult, I've written about my mother's struggle with mental illness, her death and my ensuing grief, the death of my son, the birth of my children, the raising of those children, my experience with divorce and late-in-life discovery of genuine, reciprocated love. I have also written about the more mundane: breastfeeding in public, children's carsickness, Spongebob Squarepants, politics, human nature...there is little I haven't covered.

I just finished reading a book about language and, because it is a cultural convention, we assume it reflects the culture in which we live. But there is a strong argument for the idea that individual languages actually shape the culture in which we live and how experience it. Because language and words are the tools of my trade, this idea fascinates me. It might not do much for you, though, so have no fear--that's not what this column is about. But the idea did get me thinking...

How much of our lives are based on the assumption that our experiences are shared? I don't mean shared in the sense that, say, when we go to a concert, there are a thousand other folks sharing that experience. I'm talking shared in that, what I see, you see. What I understand, you understand. How much of this sort of daily analysis is based on assumption?

For example, I was in my 30s before I realized I experience simple activities such as hearing music and tasting food in a way that is not considered "normal." I live with synesthesia, a condition in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by the perception of another. For example, I "hear" color. Every song has a color. Whether I'm merely listening to music or performing it on the piano or vocally, color accompanies every song. It's the same with food. All food has color to me; I literally "taste" color. Smells, too...each one presents itself to me in color.

Now, having not known that this is abnormal (estimate of synesthetes range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 10,000), and having experienced life in this way since I can remember, I naturally assumed everyone I knew shared this phenomenon. Then I had to research an article I was writing, and I came across this information and thought, "Holy shit! This is ME!" and that thought was immediately followed by absolute shock. So it's not normal to view life through the lens of an acid flashback? Your world is not psychedelic with colors like mine is?

I was left pondering the idea that all along, this world has shown itself to me in a way that is more vivid, more intense, than it is to most people. I got to wondering if this sensory issue was all-encompassing for me. I mean, if someone touches me, do I feel the same sensation as you do when someone touches you? I just always thought I was sensually vigilant. Turns out I am, instead, a scientific anomaly. Supposedly, this sensory crossfire is not supposed to be able to occur in the human brain. Huh.

This idea of assumptions then led me to contemplate our daily life experience. We humans assume so very much of others. How much of our miscommunication and misunderstanding is borne of the assumption that we share an experience and so must share the results of that experience? How many marriages and friendships have ended over the inherent (mis)understanding that the other person's response to any given situation(s) was wrong simply because it was not our understanding? A simple concept, but incredibly far-reaching.

I guess, at the end of the day, it comes down to judgment. When we judge, we analyze and determine the value or worth of any given act according to our own personal template. But wow. Those templates vary so greatly, yet we want--perhaps need--them to be one-size-fits-all.

Thing is, they aren't. And they never will be.


Mary A. Shafer said...

Couldn't agree more! I've learned this over and over in my life. The point was really brought home the first time I was in a life drawing class and saw that the 25+ students around me in class, looking at the same model under the same lighting, drew tremendously different pictures, even disregarding the differences in skill levels. I've never forgotten it, and it has helped me realize how much tolerance, compassion and compromise MUST be involved with every problem's solution. Great column!

Mary A. Shafer said...

So very true. This point was driven home to me the first time I was in a life drawing class. Saw the 20+ students around me all looking at the same model in the same lighting, but all drew very different pictures, completely aside from the varying skill levels. I remind myself of that now, and it points up the huge amount of tolerance, compassion and compromise involved in coming to any kind of agreement or solving a problem. Politicians, are you listening? Great column!