One of my favorite things to do is to stroll around Barnes & Noble and look at all the books. I’ve been a big time reader since I was a little tyke but during college, I wasn’t able to read as much as I would have liked (chemistry and physics textbooks have a way making leisurely reading less enticing). I believe books are one of the best ways to learn about topics, especially because books, rather than textbooks, are more likely to be interesting since they have to sell. Whether it’s a memoir, a biography, a nonfiction book, or a fiction book, books provide us an opportunity to learn others’ stories, as well as learn about topics that are important and interesting to us. I believe it’s cultivating this intelligence – intelligence about the world around us and about others’ experiences – that is one of the best things we can do with our spare time to improve who we are as human beings.
When I walk through B&N, I usually start in the science section. I love reading about other branches of science that I don’t have as thorough of a background in and it’s fascinating to me to find a science book that piques my interest. Some people have a special skill of making dense scientific topics accessible for the casual reader, and that’s a skill I admire and hope to improve upon myself, so those books are most up my alley. Aside from that, memoirs are my other favorite. In my experience, it’s impossible that all of our experiences perfectly parallel one another, no matter what. So, with the right storytelling and approach, any story can be interesting to read. Human stories are accessible because we’ve all been through something where we’ve learned valuable, possibly profound, wisdom that we wish to impart to others to prevent them from having to go through the same pains that we went through to learn them. With that being said, some things are common enough human experiences that we all have to go through them to learn those valuable lessons. Some things aren’t that common, though, and it’s those experiences that make the best fodder for personal narrative stories (*cough* why do you all think I write about CF, mental health, and grief so much?).
If you read my piece the other day (and from a couple of months ago), you know I’ve been struggling with a lot of guilt lately. Part of that guilt is questioning how I am as a person – Am I a good person? What defines a good person? If I experienced perfectly natural emotions, should that nullify the guilt? What exactly even are natural emotions, specifically during trauma?
When I was walking through B&N, I came across the biography section. An interesting thought occurred to me (though I think I read something along these lines on Reddit or elsewhere, I can’t really recall): in the mind of every person we’ve ever come in contact with, whether that’s in person, through writings, through social media, or has ever heard a story about us from somebody else, there exists a different version of us, especially compared to the version that’s in our mind. I also noticed what I think is a universal experience amongst people my age (possibly exacerbated due to social media, a topic I should write a piece about eventually): the amount we care about how we’re perceived is mostly correlated to how much we care about those people, outside of family (because the element of love provides a relatively strong sense of acceptance, so we’re less preoccupied with their perceptions; also they’ve known us the longest so they’ve seen every version of us that’s existed thus far).
As humans, we exist on a continuum. It’s impossible that we are the same person we were five years ago, or a year ago, or even a week ago. If we were, it’s not possible for us to grow in our careers, our relationships, or our mental or physical health. Whether or not we want to, we are always growing, intentionally or accidentally changing, progressing and regressing. It’s our responsibility to learn from our mistakes, to delve deep into our minds and figure out why we made those mistakes, to probe into our subconscious to find our biases and purposefully alter those perceptions. People may have one experience with us years ago, and in their mind, we’re the same person, when that’s not the reality for us or people that know us today.
Because I am a writer and most of my writings are personal narratives or experience-based, I can see my growth in my writings. Sometimes, this can feel like a bad thing. Because I can see my growth, I feel shame at who I was when I wrote a piece in my past, or I wrote something and ended up disappointing myself with actions that don’t align with what I feel like is my current moral code. With that being said, I’m intentionally exposing myself to this because I believe it encourages me to be better. When I look at leaders, I consider the strongest leaders to be the ones that wear their flaws, admit when they fail, then try to be better. It’s the strength that comes with acknowledging that we’re not perfect and that we never can be that allows me to see somebody as genuine and as a teammate in this game of life. If I ever want to be a good leader or manager, it’s important I develop these skills of self-awareness, reflection, and genuine honesty with myself before I can expect anybody to care about what I have to say.
While I think it’s important to acknowledge how differently we are perceived by others based on their frequent or rare interactions with us, at the end of the day, we only have so much control about how we are perceived. This is where the skill of introspection is valuable; our version of ourselves that exists in our mind is the one that needs to be the most important. Moral codes are influenced by our experiences, our faiths, our beliefs, possibly our genetics, and so much more. This doesn’t mean we can just pick a moral code and then justify our actions based on that moral code. For example, one can’t just choose to believe all murder is acceptable, then identify themselves as a good person after committing murder because it aligned with their beliefs. Morality is complicated and certainly not a binary issue, but all moral codes aren’t necessarily equal. The point of this, however, is that there are going to be decisions that we make that some will deem as okay and acceptable, whereas others will deem to be inexcusable. Part of human nature is the desire to have simple answers, no matter how complicated an issue may be, and social media tends to only further flatten issues, making them out to be simper than they are. When considering this phenomenon with our inclination to be the best or perfect, it’s easy for us to become preoccupied with others’ notions of who we are; or better put, who they believe we are.
One of my biggest goals with writing is to inject nuance into issues. In a world where we have infinite access to others’ opinions and knowledge, as well as social capital like followers, likes, shares, retweets, and only so much time, nuance is lost. I write because I like to clarify and probe my thinking. Writing is what has forced me to grow in my political, religious, moral, and scientific beliefs, because writing helps me to spot the incongruities in my thinking. Debating people with other opinions can help, but sometimes, that can cause us to double down and not think our opinions through clearly. When we write, we don’t have that choice; or maybe it’s my history of classes on rhetoric, ethics, and my experiences with CF that have caused me to think more deeply about these issues.
When it’s all considered together, the straightforward reality is that it isn’t straightforward at all. Human legacies, motivations, emotions, and morals are complex; humans in general even more. I think the majority of us are just out here trying our best with the time we have. Let’s do more listening, thinking, and wondering, and less yelling, justifying, and doubling down. The world is a better place when we can admit our flaws, try to be better, and just accept that nobody is perfect.
Last Saturday, my cousin Maria sent me this picture from the day after Jenn’s wedding.
This picture is striking to me, and it feels poetic. It’s actually a candid picture – I’m pretty sure Maria went to take the picture and I get sort of embarrassed when there is a camera pointed at me. (Candid pictures were Alyssa’s favorite, too.) That’s one of the most genuine smiles or laughs I’ve seen on my face since Alyssa died and, to add to that, I’m wearing the 65 LaRosas shirt I designed in honor of her. This photo is what people see; it’s the Tré I choose to project in person. This is not an accident; when I’m socializing, I really do have the ability to immerse myself in the moment, so the laughs are real. But it’s also not who I am all the time, which I realize is not what people see. It’s this dichotomy – a happy Tré existing in the minds of people that see me on social media vs the struggling internal Tré in my mind every morning and night as I do my treatments – that reiterates the reality that we appear differently to every person that knows us.
When people see me smile or laugh, I can see why it’s hard to imagine the guilt that overtakes my mind as I close my eyes and unsuccessfully try to sleep every single night. I understand it’s hard to imagine that I can joke so freely one moment, only to go home and feel so lonely.
Life isn’t simple and I’m not sure I want it to be. My anxiety has me convinced that a single interaction could ruin someone’s perception of me forever, and even if that is true, it’s certainly not something I can completely control. I can only hope to do right by as many people as possible in my time here and ensure that I’m always trying to actively grow during that time.