Thursday, November 3, 2022

Love Theater

A few months ago I wrote "Post-Covid Narcissism: The Unnecessary Extra Effort of Custom-Tailoring", fleshing out my frequent observation that we're too narcissistic to notice how narcissistic everyone's become. My problem is that, having forcibly pruned myself back to mere 99.1% narcissism, I do notice.

I described a brief conversation where a friend failed to take into account who I was.
I urged a friend to check out a TV series called "Patriot" (here’s why).

This friend has known me for 30 years. She has a rich sense of who I am and what I enjoy, and of my reliability when it comes to recommending specific things for specific people. A lot of my tips have become her most-cherished things.

"I'm not really into high-testosterone entertainment."

"Why would you think it's that?"

"The title."

"So your gut reaction to the show title supersedes all your experience with me and my recommendations?"

Short answer: yup, she absolutely prioritizes her gut reaction above the massive evidence of a 30 year personal relationship.
I hovered, as an individual, in a foggy mental slurry for her, 90% generic person (aka "People") and 10% specifically me. I'm mostly "people", and only partly and occasionally "person".

In that same posting, I upped the ante with a brief recollection that, if you're paying attention, should challenge a lot of your assumptions regarding social interaction:
It's like 2000 and [my family is] in Memphis for a wedding. Having finished a rehearsal thing, we're standing around a parking lot discussing dinner options. I pipe up: "I know a place, not too far!" A cousin replies, haughty and dubious, "Is it good?"
Another family example. I'm one of three siblings. My two sisters share some personality characteristics which I happen not to. And while my mother, at some level, recognized the distinction from decades of direct and prolonged experience, she seldom managed to maintain that distinction. It was too much work. Easier to bundle "the kids" into a single thing (to her credit, the math supported her, given that 67% does constitute a majority). So in any given circumstance, she'd assume I was motivated by the sort of thinking that drives my sisters, because I was a member of a grouping characterized by such thinking.

When you spot your mom doing it, you're helpfully forced to recognize that this is a really real thing!

Most people mostly view other people, including those close to them, as cartoons. We may periodically wake up and pay attention, registering them as fully real and unique, but mostly only during moments of reflection and assessment. Less so amid the tumult of dynamic engagement, where we easily slip back into deeming a given person "PEOPLE".

This, among other things, explains why people turn so easily. And why you're only as good as your last ____.

We are mostly blips on people's screens, even if (especially if) they frequently declare their effusive esteem/gratitude/etc. I'm not being bitter, I've simply accepted the rules of engagement. This is not a deep planet, and that's ok; we have home fries and iPads and tons of nurturing sunlight and oxygen! And, anyway, most of the tears shed over this predicament are strictly unilateral. Few of us rue our own fickle ingratitude.

You might imagine that falling in love would be the antithesis of this cartooning process. Another person becomes elevated into being THE person! Certainly not "people"! But, no, love, in most instances, is an even more egregious denial of individual humanity; an even more obvious demonstration of narcissism. That's why the divorce rate is so high. And why break-ups are often so acrimonious. Let me explain.

"I thought I knew him!"

No, you didn't. And that's on you, not him.

You were casting around for Prince Charming, and this person was nice to you, and attractive for you, and reflected back your attraction to create a rapport. This fortuitous rapport felt not just enjoyable, but significant. "It's happening! HERE HE IS!"

This narrative, which I'm mocking, like a shmuck, is considered the pinnacle of interpersonal relations. Love! Not just love, but narrative love, epic love, STORYBOOK love.

It has little to do with the actuality of the other person, who's flattened into a two-dimensional love service provider, fulfilling fantasy and enabling destiny.

Pleasant aspects of the other person's individuality are celebrated as they appear, and get spun into the STORYBOOK tale. The flaws and horrors, less so. Initially overlooked (as part of the suspension-of-disbelief critical for any dramatic narrative), they eventually penetrate the haze of endorphins, and love begins to suffer the death of a thousand cuts. "My god, this is just some freaking person. Is that what he's been all along?"

Yes. He was a person all along. The towering elevation was always phony; an artifact of opportunistic rapport and biological engineering. But it was your choice to compress three-dimensionality into a two-dimensional scripted fantasy costar. You even deemed that dehumanization profoundly beautiful!

By reducing the totality of a person into the embodiment of a scripted role you've nurtured in your head (spurred by Hollywood), you've made a cartoon of that person. Yes, you are bestowing the most elevated and privileged status of cartoon character, but that's not the honor you imagine it to be.

As you consider yourself more deeply connected and generously expressive than ever, your narcissism is peaking. Widen the frame and see that you are performing love theater with the most treasured figurine in your glass menagerie. There's only you; Narcissus peering delightedly at her reflection.

"If I love you," asked Goethe, "what business is it of yours?”

Other people are not cartoons, and you are not the only real person, and no one exists to serve as a character in your movie, speaking the lines and running the gauntlet of your dramatic narrative. If that's how you do love (and, alas, most do), then eventually - inevitably - emergent characteristics and petty irritations will compile into a revelation that the project was miscast from the start. A "poor fit". The person was never the cartoon you'd imagined. But no one ever will be, because people are not cartoons.

We never question whether the other person would/should enjoy being turned into a cartoon. After all, we're bestowing the highest possible cartoon status! Such anointment being our greatest gift, it couldn't possibly be anything but delightedly accepted. And as any such delight wanes, and as an actual human being emerges, well, that's the unthinkable worst result from an unthinkably horrible person.
What’s more, as this un-delighting progresses bilaterally, the negative rapport makes antithetical (villanous) cartoons out of both parties via the precise same process. That's how your most-favorite-person becomes your least-favorite-person.

It's always an option to humanize humans rather than compress them into cartoons - noble or villainous. Many of us forget that option. It's a framing problem.
As we begin to notice the humanity - the off-script three-dimensionality of our idealized costar - we don't like it. It abrades the perfection. But it's entirely our fault. Not for having miscast - anointing the wrong glass figurine. The problem was the impulse to turn a three dimensional unique individual into a flat dramatic character for acting out love theater with in the first place. This is not a movie. This is reality and other people are real.

"This is reality and other people are real." That strikes me as incontestable, however it reveals a diagnosable mental health issue on my end. I'm not full-out autistic, but I do have a streak (or, at least, a dangerous sympathy), and it's emerging here. Autism is a refusal (in some cases the inability) to play along with hollow drama. (More here and here)

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