The Allure Of Other People’s Lives: Why We Can’t Mind Our Own Business

You never know what goes on behind closed doors.

My mother said this often when I was growing up, usually after learning something unexpected about an acquaintance, co-worker, celebrity–whomever.

The thought always frightened me and I often studied friends and strangers with suspicion, wondering: “what do you do that no one knows about?”

Perhaps they did drugs. Or their house was unimaginably filthy. Or their family had nightly, ritualistic fist-fights. I usually imagined abuse of some sort, and I think this is what my mother was alluding to.

As I’ve gotten older and society has become so open, I’m often aghast when I learn what people do in their private lives, from the obscene to the bizarre. And I’ve only grown more interested.

But why do I care about what other people are doing? Why do people care about what I’m doing?

Why can’t we all just mind our own business?

You Won’t Believe What He Did!

Talking behind each other’s backs is hard-wired into our brains, so it seems. Where there are groups of people, there’s gossip.

Anthropologists think gossip is the glue that bonds people together. We also use it to exclude and isolate people who aren’t contributing to the well-being of the group. Think of a group of hunter-gatherers like an ancient version of an office. There’s always that one berry picker who doesn’t pull her weight, taking breaks while the others fill their baskets. Gossip may be a way to motivate her to try harder. If she doesn’t, she’ll end up alone.

In other words, we bond over shared frustrations and sometimes hatred. It’s a survival tactic. If we align with other people, we have a better chance of surviving. If we tick off the group and become the subject of gossip, we may just die.

Underlying gossip, of course, is judgment. And this common human habit also serves a purpose: it’s much easier to judge than it is to understand.

Who Does He Think He Is?

We judge because we don’t have time to figure out why everyone around us is doing whatever it is they do. We don’t have time to figure out their motivations.

It’s easier for us to conclude someone is being rude to us because they’re a jerk than it is to figure out why they may be acting like a jerk in that moment. It’s a difference between situational versus personality attributions; the former is the understanding kind, the latter the judgey one.

In order to truly understand someone else, we have to know the actual motivation behind their actions, which is a very complicated thing. In the absence of that, we draw our own conclusions. So being judgmental is just plain lazy.

As part of this laziness, we speculate, we offer opinions based on our speculations, we condemn and demean based on those opinions.

But we never actually look behind that closed door.

He Should Be More Like Us

People like to tell me the intimate details of their lives. I have one of those faces, apparently. Or maybe they can sense I’ll actually listen.

The other day, a perfect stranger told me about his lifestyle choices. He has a kid he barely knows, but never wanted kids at all. He divorced his wife after seven years of marriage. He has no interest in getting married again, but has had lots of girlfriends.

He wisely acknowledged two things about himself: he doesn’t want to negotiate every decision in his life with another person, and he’s selfish. Good for him, I thought, for knowing this about himself. He knows what he can give to another person, and what he can’t. Most of us don’t understand ourselves this well.

But people judge him, brutally, for his lifestyle choices. They think he should live like them, and if he doesn’t, something is wrong with him. “Like them” means the heterosexual, nuclear family. Mom, Dad, two kids.

I listened to this man explain the “why” behind his choices. It was simple: he just doesn’t want the same things as everyone else.

But the people who judge him don’t ask why. They compare his life to theirs, and determine theirs is better. They isolate him through gossip, because he’s not contributing to society by adhering to its norms. Perhaps their beef is with the fact that he’s not reproducing. Perhaps they feel he’s not doing his share or he has it easy. Unlike them, he’s not struggling through life to support a family, but instead coasts through with freedom and plenty of money and no responsibilities. Regardless, what this man decides to do with his life is still nobody’s business. He’s not hurting anyone; if anything, he’s hurting himself.

But despite all the natural drives that explain gossip and judgment–which make sense–I’m still left wondering why we care how other people live.

With some exceptions, what other people do behind closed doors doesn’t affect us. So are we interested out of morbid curiosity? In general, we’re afraid of what we don’t know–not knowing the private lives of our neighbors is a scary thought if they’re evil people. What about insecurity and jealousy? We have to know that what we’re doing and what we have is better, so we can live with ourselves and, theoretically, be happy.

Perhaps the human habit of “not minding our own business” is a way to measure ourselves. Alone, without anything to compare ourselves to, we’d have no idea how we’re doing. When we pry into the lives of others, we’re really searching ourselves.

YOUR TURN

Why do you think we’re so interested in other people’s lives? Have you ever been the subject of malicious gossip? Have other people ever openly judged your lifestyle choices?

Photo Courtesy Pexels

Beware the Quiet Ones: A Look Inside the Mysterious World of Shy People

I have always hated the saying, “it’s always the quiet ones.”

After a mass shooting or a despicable murder, this is a common refrain. Reporters interview neighbors who knew the suspect and they usually mention how unassuming the killer was. He was quiet and kept to himself.

I can’t recall any specific events or words spoken, but what I do remember is the anger I always feel after hearing others agree.

“It’s always the quiet ones,” someone inevitably says.

(Forgetting the extroverted charm of Ted Bundy, of course).

And the audience at home, listening in rapt tension, generally agrees with this. They start looking at the quiet people in their lives and wonder: is he quiet because he’s plotting something?

Chances are the answer is no. Chances are that quiet person is simply that–just quiet–and wants to be left alone. That person is either suffering from social anxiety, is an introvert, or doesn’t like to make a spectacle of himself.

Personally, I’ve never been victimized by a shy or quiet person. Quite the opposite: it’s  people who can’t shut up who bother me. They run their mouths until they say something offensive. They can’t take no for an answer. They bully and tease. They steal the spotlight, interrupt, and berate.

But it’s the quiet ones who are suspect, who are carefully watched for any signs of psychopathy, But why, other than the methodical plotting of serial murder, would someone be shy or quiet?

Fear

Shy and quiet are not the same thing. Shy means you’re afraid to talk to people (generally), while being quiet means you just choose not to speak.

There are many reasons why a person may choose not to speak to others, but if you’re deciding every single day to keep your mouth shut, there must be a reason for it. As a quiet person myself, I can provide some insight into two reasons.

Insecurity and ineptitude.

As I said earlier, I’ve found that most people don’t trust the quiet. And the quieter you are, the more suspicious you appear. A quiet person leaves everything up to interpretation. They are a blank slate. People are natural gossips and always curious, and so they fill in that blank slate with assumptions and opinions and details, many of which aren’t true at all and are usually negative.

Exacerbating this truth is another: talking to people is difficult. Choosing topics and the right words to express them. Reading your audience. Figuring out what other people want from you or how you should act. Balancing talking with listening. Some quiet people simply can’t navigate all of this trouble.

The quiet person knows he’s different and lacking something fundamental to being human–the easy ability to communicate. He listens to the conversations around him, perhaps wishing he knew what to say. He can tell the people around him think he’s weird and awkward, heightening insecurities he already has.

He’s probably tried and failed to talk to people with ease and charm, and so now the prospect is frightening. And most people avoid their fears. In the end, it’s just easier just to keeps his mouth shut.

Modesty

In college, I took a sculpture class. (Side note: I suck at making sculptures).

My professor was young, maybe in his mid 30s, and handsome for a professor. He was “hip.” I think he had a nose ring. He found out one day that I liked the band Kings of Leon (a brand-spanking new band back then) and burned their most recent album on a CD for me.

He was a man of few words, always watching and listening, smiling to himself. I sensed that he was always thinking about something deep and fascinating, but would never share it with anyone.

He was a good professor and from what I could tell, a talented artist. He was intelligent and interesting and paid attention to the people around him. He was quiet but not cut off from the outside world.

One day in class, he said to no one in particular that most people talk and talk and talk, but rarely say anything at all. Truer words were never spoken, and they bring me to the second motivation for being quiet–modesty.

Some people put themselves on display. Every thought and feeling is expressed, every achievement and talent boasted about, every opinion shared openly. A quiet person like my sculpture professor doesn’t like to impose themselves on others.

That person understands there’s a time to say what you think, and a time to keep it to yourself. Or maybe he doesn’t think his thoughts, feelings, achievements, talents, or opinions are interesting enough to share with the world. Or he just wants to hide, averse even to positive attention.

Introversion

Introverts and extroverts don’t really understand each other.

I can’t comprehend someone deriving energy and excitement from being around other people. Other people tire me out–and that’s how introverts function.

To an introvert, the outside world can be a bit too over-stimulating at times and when that happens, they retreat into the inner sanctum of their own thoughts. They are comfortable with being quiet and are always thinking about something, real or imagined.

The introvert has an internal energy meter. When she goes out into the outside world, with all of its stimuli and people, that meter is full. With every conversation, no matter how minor, the meter decreases, like a battery. Eventually, there’s no energy left and the introvert needs to recharge.

At this point, the introverted brain literally loses the ability to form words and sentences, or listen to the words and sentences spoken by others. It’s a crushing fatigue, pulling the introvert down into quiet oblivion.

Energy returns only in an environment of solitude, quiet, and stillness. A calming, familiar place, a solo activity, a nap. And once the energy bar is full again, she can go back into the world, fresh-faced and ready to speak.

I’ve never understood why quiet, shy people inspire such suspicion and distrust. Of course, this depends on the person and their overall attitude and behavior. A quiet person with an intense, borderline inappropriate stare is a creep. A quiet woman with an air of confidence is a snob.

But are they secretly plotting something sinister? Likely not. More likely they simply don’t know how to start the conversation.

YOUR TURN

Are you an extrovert or introvert? How do you feel at the prospect of talking to people? And if you’re not shy at all, what is your impression of people who are?

Photo Courtesy Pexels and  Himanshu Sharma

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why You Have More In Common With Drug Addicts Than You Think

Certain people are very easy to judge. Bad reputations remain unchallenged. Opinion becomes truth.

It’s easy to judge a drug addict, for example. We’ve all heard and perhaps repeated common beliefs about such people: they’re weak, selfish, self-destructive, they’ll do anything for a hit, they don’t care about the people who love them.

I disagree with all of these descriptions, mostly because they’re far too simplistic. In my short life, I’ve known many people who’ve abused substances and I’ve listened to their stories. What I’ve learned is that nothing is ever simple as a list of adjectives.

And I’ve always ended up wondering why. (As a writer, I’m programmed to do this. I can’t help it) Why does a person become addicted to drugs? What were the choices and circumstances that led down that path? What personal struggles contributed? Was it some inherent quality or something that happened to them?

It takes a little effort to try to understand another person. All you have to do is look inside yourself, to some point of similarity. Because it’s there.

Have you ever wanted to forget a difficult memory? Wished your mind would stop chattering? Felt you couldn’t overcome something because it was too hard? Hated yourself with every fiber of your being?

If you can answer those questions honestly, that’s a start.

A Life Without Love

The compulsion to use drugs was explained to me once like this: “no one cares about me, so I’ll do what I want. If I had a woman, or a kid, that would be different. But I don’t.”

Beneath that statement is a very sad truth–a lack of self-worth.

All of us look outward for reassurance, for confirmation that we are valuable as human beings. We instinctively expect certain people to shower us with love–our parents, siblings, extended family.

But if, rather than reassurance, those people instead berate and abuse us, we are left believing to our very core that we are worthless.

Very few people are strong enough to look inward and believe that they’re good enough, with no outward confirmation. If the outside world says we’re ugly or stupid, etc, we believe that rather than love ourselves.

Return to that quote again: “If I had a woman, or a kid, that would be different. But I don’t.” Most people live for others, not themselves. While we may act selfishly and do things for ourselves on occasion, our true motivation is the happiness of the people we love.

Imagine you already believe yourself to be worthless, because that’s what the world has told you. Imagine also that you are alone, with no one care for. It’s just you, hating yourself, with no motivation to be better.

If drugs erased these feelings and replaced them with a euphoria you can’t experience otherwise, do you think you could resist them?

Leaving Your Problems Behind

This one is pretty obvious: people use drugs to run away from their problems. The fellow reporter I worked with at a newspaper years ago drank himself into oblivion to forget about the day his daughter was run over by a snow plow.

Drug addicts are weak, right? The rest of us deal with our problems, you may say. But do you, really? Think about it. Avoidance takes many forms.

We all escape. To clear our minds of the day’s stresses, we play video games, watch TV, read a book. Go for a run, hike, go “out” with friends to dance or drink.

Healthy escapes, yes, but this is the point if similarity.

Do you avoid confrontation by refusing to have an opinion in an argument? Or do you use passive aggressive tactics to get your way? Are you well aware that your cholesterol is too high, yet you put off changing your diet because it’s too hard? Or maybe you know your spouse is cheating on you, but bury yourself in distraction–work, hobbies, you name it–so you don’t have to think about it.

We all close our awareness to problems we can plainly see, stupidly hoping the problem will go away. It doesn’t. It never does–not until you deal with it. But dealing with it is too hard. As you read this, you’re probably thinking of that thing in your life you want to avoid.

Now imagine that thing is bigger. The death of a child. A rape. A failed marriage. Being in a car accident. A combat tour overseas. You already avoid the small problems, the things you probably could deal with if you tried. Do you really think you could handle something worse without turning to an unhealthy escape?

I doubt I could.

The Power of Chemicals

Think about the people in your life. I bet, like me, a handful of them are addicted to pain killers.

I know three people who are. The opioid crisis in my county is so bad that the foster care system can’t handle all the children taken away from addicted parents.

Anyone could end up in this place. You. Me. Your brother. Your grandmother. The path is easy, because it often begins with a doctor.

You get hurt, you have a condition, and you need pain relief. The doctor gives you a pill. And you think–“it came from the doctor, it must be okay!” Before you even know what’s happening, your body can’t live without that little pill.

I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here. The point I’m trying to get across is that the path to drug addiction can start innocently, the point of entry guarded by someone in a position of trust. It doesn’t have to be illicit, the drugs purchased in secret and illegally, injected with dirty needles. The drugs can be in a prescription bottle you pick up at Walgreens.

In my experience people underestimate the overpowering and insidious effect of chemicals on the human body and mind. I did.

My own point of similarity is birth control. It was prescribed to me at sixteen, by a doctor who listened to my problems for five minutes and took the easiest route to fix them. For eighteen years, my body grew accustomed to that chemical support and didn’t know how to function without it. Over the years, the pill gave me numerous health problems, among them irritable bowel syndrome and chronic anxiety.

My point is that we are not our true selves on chemicals. Our bodies and minds aren’t functioning naturally while under their influence. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Some of these influences are necessary to improve our health, of course. But others can have drastic consequences. And though it may be a far cry from more illicit drugs, the use of legal ones proves at least one point: that we are at their whim.

Photo Courtesy Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels.

Your Turn

Has drug addiction effected your life? What do you do to escape?

The Snooty, Incomprehensible Lives of the Rich, Famous & Royal

I was probably the last person on Earth to watch “The Crown” on Netflix. And, like everyone else, I loved it.

But I’m a little biased. Years ago, a DNA test revealed my ancestry to be 64% English, which is apparently more English than English people. So a love for Queen Elizabeth II is in my blood. Once I finished the series, I moved on to her biography, which is a mighty tome that I have yet to finish; I’ve read as far as the birth of her third son, Andrew.

To this point, my opinion of the Queen is that she is a lady to be admired and emulated, for her character, strength, and intelligence. Yes, it’s probably un-American for me to like her so much. After all, we fought a whole war to prove how much we didn’t want the Crown to boss us around. But there’s more than one way to view the world and the people in it, and both the Netflix series and the biography got me thinking about inherited wealth, privilege, and duty.

Is it a blessing to envy? Or a trap to pity?

Those of us in the lower classes look up to people like the Queen or even just a celebrity and assume that they’re better off. They live lives of luxury, high above us mere mortals. They’re snooty and incomprehensible.

Such a position can be earned, such as by the self-made millionaire, the Hollywood starlet. Or it can be assumed at birth as a member noble or aristocratic class or the second or third generation inheriting old money.

It takes no effort whatsoever to hate such people. But the tragic reality is, normal people have something precious, which may be the most important thing in life–more important than money.

The option to choose your own path.

Mon Petit Chou, Lillibet, My Queen

“Regular” people have choices. They can choose whom to marry. Where to go to school and what profession to pursue, their friends and where they live. They can be themselves, owning and expressing their emotions.

I’m well aware that “The Crown,” while based on real history, is a dramatized version of it. Elizabeth II’s true thoughts and feelings are her own. But the character of Elizabeth II, the fictionalized version, is fair game for interpretation.

The first few episodes of “The Crown” depicted the young Queen–suddenly thrust into her royal duties after the death of her father–holding on to the choices her former life allowed her. She wanted to keep her married name. Live in the home she and Phillip had spent the early years of their marriage renovating. Choose her personal secretary. But those weren’t her choices to make.

The series also explored Elizabeth coming to terms with a sobering fact: that she can’t be Lillibet anymore, with all her personal desires, emotions, and former loyalties. Not entirely, at least. Those must be cast aside, to make way for the Queen’s duties. And in performing those duties, she has to shed her former self and make cold decisions that hurt the people she cares about. She has to think like another person.

In the show, Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, was asked a favor by a friend, as a friend. And the king’s answer was heartbreaking: Albert is dead, I am the King. And then, he gave the King’s answer, not his own.

Perhaps he no longer knew what Albert’s answer would be.

I have a hard time imagining this transformation. To be yourself is a natural and expected thing. But if you’re a called to fulfill a role–like Albert when his brother abdicated — everything you were doing at that moment, all of the plans you had for the future, your expectations for your life, and your habitual ways of behaving, must be abandoned.

Albert killed who he was, in order to become King George VI.

It seems very much to me like a tragic and sudden death. Something that completely alters what has become normal and that you take for granted. And there’s no going back.

We all find ourselves having to play roles, putting aside our true selves to fill expectations. On a less grand and consequential scale, perhaps, but it is certainly something all of us can relate to.

With Great Wealth, Comes Great Expectations

Imagine living your entire life with the world closely watching. And not just watching, but expecting something very specific from you.

“Regular” people are answerable only to themselves and their families, friends, and co-workers. That circle is very small. We still feel pressure, however, as we fulfill our own chosen or inherited duties. To become a doctor like our father, or try not to be an alcoholic like everyone else in our family, or choose a path that the people we love reject.

What if the duty you inherit requires not just immense sacrifice, but it’s something you’re obligated to fulfill and comes with grave responsibility? You may not even be convinced you’re qualified. You may spend your every waking moment questioning your decisions, or in terror of their consequences.

The Queen was tasked with such a duty–God given, she believed, to protect her country and the people in it. That’s no small task, and she can’t very well quit, not when the lives of her people are in her hands. Her job is done when she dies. There is no retirement.

I’ve often wondered if she wanted to breed horses instead. In the show, she declared that she would’ve rather have lived the life of a simple English country woman, something I doubt the real Queen would admit openly. Giving all of that up in the name of duty and service is incredibly noble and selfless and in its own way, heartbreaking.

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“The Crown” season three, with a new Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

Life in a Bubble

Someone with such a life cannot live it normally. They must remain in a cocoon, separate from the outside world. In it, but not a part of it.

People often wish they were “normal,” feeling as though their qualities, whether strange or rejected or simply unlikable, separate them from other people.

Being a Royal isn’t normal and it’s most certainly a quality that separates you from other people. In an episode of “The Crown,” the Queen Mother flees to Scotland to be alone with her grief–the loss of a husband, a position, a daughter–and meets a man, from whom she keeps her identity a secret. She does so just to feel like anyone else in the world.

For “normal people,” reality is a very specific thing, so humdrum and routine that it isn’t in the least bit special. It’s a quiet and anonymous life of working, raising children, going grocery shopping, paying bills, watching TV….

Living in a community of others who do the same things is a kind of comfort. People relate to and bond with each other over shared experiences. But who shares the Queen’s experiences? Or any other person like her, past or present?

Such a person must truly an island to herself. The strength required to live such a life is superhuman.

Given what I’ve read about her character–the real Queen Elizabeth II, that is–she wouldn’t feel sorry for herself or pine for what she could’ve had. She is an example to all of us, poor and rich alike, of how to rise to overcome life’s struggles with dignity.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy By PolizeiBerlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

YOUR TURN

Do you often wish you had the wealth and privilege that people like Queen Elizabeth II or your favorite celeb enjoy? Or would rather keep your humdrum, normal life? Why?