We Are Not Islands: Expectation as a Viral Contagion, Working On Belief, and Embracing Idealism
I've listened to Invisibilia's podcast episode "How to Become Batman" a couple of times now, because it is giving me a more concrete basis to understand something I've thought for a long time about what influences how we become who we are. "How to Become Batman" starts off with a discussion about how lab rats perform at distinctly different levels depending on our expectations of their performance. Experiments have shown that, even between species who cannot verbally communicate, our expectations of another's abilities can strongly affect performance.
The experiment cited in Invisibilia's podcast showed that if a human believes one particular rat is stupid just because there is a sign above its cage that says so, that rat will actually behave as though it is stupid. How powerful is that?
Many self-help messages out there unintentionally place blame for your lack of fulfillment and success on your own actions, as though we are islands solely responsible for our own happiness. Often, the message is that our joy and achievements can only be reached if we actively control our attitudes and actions. It's a powerful message, because it can make a person feel a level of control over their own lives that is intoxicating, but it is also deeply flawed, because we are not islands, and it is also our deeper connections with the world and the people around us that affects who we are and sustains our change.
My question, whenever faced with ideas like the power of positive thinking or the horribly dystopian law of attraction, which many individuals take to mean that they are the progenitors of their own fates, has always been: but what if it's not just my thoughts that got me here, and what if it's not just my thoughts that will propel and sustain me?
What if other people's perceptions about who I am and what I can achieve are what have blocked opportunities? What if other people's subtle physical and verbal cues, and sometimes not so subtle, have changed not only how I saw myself, but also how others saw me, moulding a world around me that was antithetical to positive outcomes?
Logically, this has been obvious to me for some time, and sociologists and their ilk have been pointing this kind of thing out for decades — check out labelling theory and Becker's 1963 book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (which I have not read, but I've got in queue) — but the real effects of our social web, both on- and offline are still often ignored in favour of the very tantalizing message that we are the masters of our own fates if we would only choose to hold the reins.
I'm not saying that we, as individuals, don't play a deeply powerful role in who we become, how we behave, and what we achieve, but I do think it's vital, if we truly aim for personal change, to look at the larger web of who influences us and others around us and who we, in turn, influence.
When I quit drinking in August of 2010, I did so after years of hard thinking about it, because I didn't want to face the truth of what I was going to have to do if I wanted to quit and stay quit. The truth was that I had long surrounded myself with people who would not see my style of drinking as problematic. It supported my case for myself as not being a problem drinker, and it helped me excuse my behaviour when I drank around them. I want to be clear that I am not throwing any shade on my old circle of friends. They were kind and good to me for many years, and my relationship with alcohol is not indicative of their relationship with it. Still, though, I used my community to support my addiction, and I knew I would have to leave that community to change my relationship with alcohol.
You could say that it was I who made the decision to drink like I did for 20 years and that it was I who grabbed the reins and turned that life around, but that would ignore the effect that others' perceptions of me had on who I chose to be for 20 years. We live in interconnected communities. We actively affect each other for ill or for good, and a good portion of the time we are not cognizant of the many smaller actions that affect our behaviours as a community. It can take only one socially influential person to physically posture subtle signs of disbelief every time you speak, and pretty soon many others pick up on it and follow suit. Before you know it, you feel stupid, even though there is no empirical evidence to support it. And yet.
It's a complicated web we weave, these lives of ours. We become what we expect, and often what we expect is what others expect.
I went to elementary school with this kid I'll call Larry. Larry was unattractive, he smelled bad, and he moved with a heavy slowness. He was called stupid at home, teachers ignored him, and he did poorly on tests. What struck me about all of this is that after I talked to him over a few recesses, this idea that Larry was stupid was obviously false, if only to me at the time. I found out he was a voracious reader and remembered just about every detail of what he read. He could even speak about our class work at length. Larry was not only smart, but he was smarter than 95% of the class, and yet he told me himself that he was stupid.
Larry wasn't a lesser person for internalizing this message. It was logical. His family, his school, and his friends all agreed on his relative stupidity. If the whole world says blue is blue, why would you argue and call it red?
This is how I continued to drink, and this is how I accepted that my drinking was a fun social activity long after it was apparent to me that it was not. Why not? Most of my world behaved as though it was perfectly normal for 20 years. My addiction is, of course, a much more complicated experience than that, as all stories are, but expectation is a powerful thing. I was only able to break free when my life depended on me doing so, and I was only able to break free by breaking away from the life that expected that behaviour of me. I had to walk away from most of the friends I'd made over the previous 10 years of my life.
Even though, in walking away, some would say I apparently became the master of my own fate, I did not. I really didn't. I broke away from a certain set of expectations and sought another. I am fantastically blessed somehow, because I found community with a different set of expectations that support my sobriety, but there were no guarantees that that would happen. There never are. Our expectations can profoundly change outcomes, but others' expectations of us can profoundly change our own, and this is the kind of thinking about interconnectedness that so often gets lost when we talk about self-empowerment.
Self-empowerment that works and continues to work over time is rarely an individual achievement. Just as it does with raising children, it takes a village.
We need each other, and we need each other beyond coffee and helping each other move and sharing our griefs and whatnot. We need to believe in each other. We need to believe in each other even when all apparent signs point to no. Larry looked, behaved, and believed the part of a stupid person, but he was not. I truly hope he found out otherwise. I looked, behaved, and believed the part of an alcoholic for 20 years, but thanks to my will to survive and finding a community who expected something different from me, I found out that I could behave otherwise.
So this is what I've been working on as someone who once didn't believe in anyone and then found an often wavering but still existent belief in myself. I am working on believing in people. I am working on believing in the possibility of at least relative greatness. I am working on believing in people that we are told are not worth that belief.
This world feels so heavy and lost and hard these days, and I need to know that we are honestly and truly better than this, even if right now that knowledge is resting on the seemingly impossible hope founded on an experiment in belief with rats. If rats can be smart just because our saying so fosters it, I'm thinking we can do this. We can metaphorically hang signs above humanity's head that say "these people are smart" and "these people play well with others" and "these people are good at building great shit together". We can be better, because we are better. We say so.
Hell, I used to be a person who accepted a coping mechanism that made me black out three times a week and suffer alarming memory loss for years, and with no reason to believe I could be otherwise, I believed and became otherwise. Belief is a tool for survival, not just flight of fancy. This is what I'm going to try to remember from now on: I need to believe, and you need to believe, because we can become what we can see, even if it's only a vision in our heads.
So, from now on, I believe.