Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On the Opinion of our Peers

Two observations and a story.

Observation 1:

First, it occurs to me that a healthy disregard for the opinions of our peers is something that some people never develop. Oh, they matter. But only sometimes and in regard to some things. I think I'm known for speaking the truth. That matters to me. It doesn't matter to me that I'm known for doing so somewhat indelicately--what one unfortunate supervisor whom I revere to this day as the finest officer under whom I ever had the honor to serve referred to as "poking sticks at snakes." "But they're snakes," never seemed to answer the mail on that. I've gotten better though, more choosy about my battles. Still . . . >-)

So, in some respects, I do care what people think. Should they ever think me dishonest, cruel, ill-spoken, etc, then I suppose I would admit the need to seriously examine my behavior. But, if the labels they're tossing my way tend more toward "nuts," "flippin' crazy," "completely out of his gourd," well, those are just reminders that I'm probably still a hell of a lot happier and better adjusted than they are. >-) (There are psychiatric labels for this sort of conceit, I'm sure, but I am more resistant to cure in this respect than MRSA.)

In my case, it took a long time for me to reach this place. In some respects, I often think my current disregard for the head-shaking of my peers (my best friends just cheer--it's one reason they are my best friends) is a sort of balancing of the scales. I cared, like most teenagers and young adults, way too much, for way too long about the illusive twins of approval and acceptance. Way too long.

Observation 2:

Which brings me to my second observation. It also occurs to me that, at least early in our lives, we tend to possess that healthy scorn for the approval of our peers in uncannily inverse proportion to our need for it. The person who is part of the "in" clique has more peer approval than he or she knows what to do with, so whether they care or not doesn't really matter.

The person who marches to the beat of Thoreau's different drummer though, that poor person has a real need for a numbness to criticism or even attention. You may be thinking, I'm sure, that such a person's eccentricities are themselves a sign of possessing that precious disregard, and rarely, you would be right. More often though, the gene of utter uniqueness isn't paired with either the gene of self-confidence or heedlessness. Doubly cursed, such a one is equally incapable of running with the crowd and of not caring where the crowd is going or that it notices her solo journey.

A Story:

Way back in . . . well, a while ago--the year I graduated from college actually--I gave Britney (unborn at the time) a run for her money in the field of short marriages. (Hang with me. It relates.) Right after graduation, I'd looked up a girl I'd been thinking of for no less than two years, but had never dated because when we'd met, she'd been the girlfriend of a fellow student and friend. He'd moved on and I moved in. We dated through my summer leave, kept the flames burning through the fall, and then I flew her to Sacramento for her fall break in October. After 10 blissful days, she wanted nothing so much as a proposal. I held out for a couple of weeks (well, maybe a week at least) after her return to Western Carolina before admitting to myself that there was really nothing about bachelorhood nearly so appealing as beginning and ending each day in the glow of her raven-haired, blue-eyed, Cherokee-cheek-boned smile. Had her continuation at school been certain, I'd not have considered it, but she was thinking that finances were going to force her to take at least a semester off. So I asked if she had plans the day after Christmas, offered a suggestion in case she didn't, and she said, "Yes, yes, oh yes." Yeah. Exactly like that. Like it was yesterday.

And so all was excitement. For a few weeks, maybe a month. Then, the opinions of peers began to kick in. Back on campus, in the dorm, on the court (she was "most athletic" in her high school class) she began to hear, "Why do you want to get married? You can have any guy you want. What are you thinking?" Had they known me, they'd have known what she was thinking. That 6'1" tanned blond guy in the flight suit driving the British convertible when he wasn't flying wasn't exactly hard up for options either. But, by the time Christmas rolled around, "Yes, yes, oh yes," had become, "How would you feel about waiting until June?" This, two whole days before a wedding to rival Princess Diana's. Hmmm. BOLDFACE: BAIL OUT! BAIL OUT! BAIL OUT!

But, I was, back then, among the most susceptible of humans to that despicable craving for approval and acceptance that this post is all about. I knew what I needed to do. It was, as they like to say in physics texts, intuitively obvious to even the casual observer. But the thought of attempting an explanation to all our friends and family who expected a blissful event in two days time was petrifying. And so, knowing it wasn't the right thing to do, I stood there as she came down the aisle, and I betrayed us both.

A week in NC visiting relatives. A flight back to California one week after the wedding. Last, "I love you," I ever heard from her in the airport in Louisville, KY, changing flights. Two weeks in Sacramento, growing distance, faraway looks, "What are you pondering there?" "Just thinking about what I'd be doing if I weren't married." "I'm afraid it was just that the, you know, was so good." October, inseparable. January, low-level, moved to the couch, unable to sleep with someone not wanting to be touched, and needing to sleep before days zipping along at 250 kts and 500 ft. Three weeks to the day after the wedding, a trip to the airport, and in the worst winter storm Sacramento had seen in decades, I sent her back home to NC.

It's still open for debate whether the dumbest thing I've ever done was on the day after Christmas or on that day three weeks later. But looking back, one thing about the whole affair that is clearer to me now than ever is the role played by an inability to ignore, disregard, brush off, rise above, and otherwise overcome the opinions of our peers, hers and mine. Her lack of immunity to those opinions had basically killed a thing of such intense passion that I long ago gave up the hope of seeing its like again. My own hypersensitivity to those opinions had allowed me to ignore her one brief plea for help, "How would you feel about waiting until June?"

The opinion of our peers. What do they know of our hearts? Of our choices? Of our fate? The objective value of those opinions is constant over time. What changes is our understanding of it. Our susceptibility to it. Our immunity to its influence. Until we can achieve that, we are ever likely to purchase acceptance and approval with self-betrayal. None of this, mind you, is meant to be chiding. These are observations only; not lessons. For those born susceptible to it--and God knows most of us are; I know I was--no amount of reading or schooling can impart the needed disdain. Only time and life do that, and even then, not always, not for everyone.

As I said, I'm busy balancing my own scales in that regard. That I'm also feeling a little déjà vu these days is sad, but I would be the last to condemn anyone I otherwise admire so much for a susceptibility I once sported myself in spades. At any given time in this journey, we each have just so much disdain to distribute. If we march to a different drummer in one corner of our lives, sometimes we need to keep step with our peers in another. We all choose battles. And for those of us able to take all comers if we so chose, sometimes there is more honor in ceding the field.