It began with the words of Mark Vonnegut in his book The Eden Express some years ago and returned to haunt in the story of brain specialist James Fallon who discovered he had the brain structure characteristic of a psychopath. Both expressed astonishment over their discovery of what others thought of them when they came to probe to issue of their persona with some depth, particularly through those closest to them. They had never suspected what everyone around them really had thought of them.
It had been like some informal conspiracy of silence all those years as they had gone along thinking that they were sufficiently self-aware and knew those around them well enough to get a good idea regarding what they thought of them, how they felt towards them, what they might say to one another behind their back or only silently acknowledge to one another when in their presence.
It has become a plaguing question to me, I confess: how blind might I be to how others perceive me? How large, how thick is the curtain drawn over that corner of Johari Window — that section of glass reflecting my social self, my persona? What might they know of me that I do not?
This question often comes up when I consider this guy I work with, Gus as I have formerly called him, who clearly showers or does laundry on only the rarest of occasions. Oftentimes his stench is atrocious, to such an extent that you almost want to speak frankly about the elephant dung in the room, but you don’t.
Still, as I have posed to others, could it be that he is not aware of the degree to which he smells? After all, out of some degree of sensitivity to him we do not openly remark to him about his foul odor and perhaps his smell is to him as my cigarette smoking is to me. Due to constant, unceasing exposure to cigarette smoke I have become largely desensitized to it, my subliminal system naturally filters it out. When I lock myself in my apartment and smoke cigarettes I hardly notice the smell, but if I leave to get groceries on a walk upon my return the lingering scent is suddenly to some degree distinct to me. I don’t think it smells bad, but nor do I notice it most of the time — though it is quite clear to the clean-lunged who surely smell that smokey odor on my cloths.
So perhaps Gus cannot smell his own stink and furthermore may never know he stinks due to (a) his desensitization to his own BO and (b) our unwillingness to provide the objective feedback on his BO due to it being deemed, through social customs, to be an act of cruelty, an insult and (c) our foreknowledge of the kind of aggressive behavior and stubborn attitude, emotional reactivity and rigid thinking he exhibits when stimulated by criticism or even the seemingly harmless sharing of an observation that counters his own firmly-established conceptions. So his sensitivity, and our sensitivity to his sensitivity, is also a factor.
He lives in a bubble as a consequence; an unofficial one-man safe space where he is protected from the truth. Both the social environment and he himself on a level collaborate in this conspiracy against him. Its a subliminal dynamic, a collective effort on behalf of us all on some unconscious level. Protecting him against the frightening facts that might shatter his worldview and irreversibly damage his ego and yet maybe, just maybe, provoke him to take a long, hot shower in an act of integrating this profound, however embarrassing, revelation.
Am I helping to maintain just such a bubble myself? Am I trapped in an unofficial safe space? Am I significantly less self-aware than I supposed? I know I’m a hypersensitive fuck, but I value the truth. Could I handle it, or might it destroy me?
I think this bubble-busting question is the force behind frequent fantasies of mine regarding how people would react to my death, what they would do and say and, infinitely more important to me, what they would think and feel (of me, for me, at me, as a consequence of me) upon my shedding of my mortal fleshy-shell. After awhile it becomes clear that whatever their reactions may be it will be equally, across-the-board agonizing for me to observe. Either they can easily deal with my passing, which would make me feel worthless, or they will agonize over it, the mere thought of which agonizes me not only because they feel it but because it would have been I who caused them to feel it. Be it a matter of death or birth, then, suppression or revelation, self-inflicted, externally-imposed or natural, there is pain and suffering: from womb to tomb, from birth-pangs to death-throes. You live your life knowing who you are and what others mean to you; perhaps death provides an opportunity for you to linger around and see who you were to them, what you meant to them, and decide whether or not this should change anything.
In any case, it reveals truths you had been blind to.
Sadly, this would all occur in retrospect, at least with respect to a singular incarnation, but it doesn’t really have to. Death may provide opportunity for it, but life is fertile with opportunities as well. There was, of course, Mark and the psychopathic brain guy. They uncovered their conspiracies in the midst of life, lifted that tiny curtain on that corner of the window, and accepted the truth.