A few days ago someone I worked with in 2009 sent me a message while I recently changed my Linkedin status into traveling. “Good on you Janine, so well deserved’’! It took me some time to remember our relationship back then. After a few days I realized we worked together on a fund-raising project for a cultural venue in the Netherlands. But at that point in time, about ten years ago, my memory was not that good. I was very unhappy with myself. I felt ashamed about where I was at that time. I strongly felt that I would never be able to fulfill my dreams fully simply because I did not belong to the happy few. Which were in my opinion, people with talents, who had conversations with their parents about their drives, strives and goals. Their experiences and aims for the future. There was always a supporting network of friends and family around with somehow the same interests and hobbies. And there always seemed to be someone you know or should know who was interested in your plans or insecurities about the future and able and willing to help you further.
I have to admit that back then I was already strongly influenced by the family of my ex- boyfriend who came from a former wealthy Victorian English family. While my father was doing a good job as a teacher with some entrepreneurial skills lend from my mother, I immediately failed while I was having dinner at my ex-boyfriend’s place and said that I would like to use the ‘toilet’. As soon as possible I learned all the do’s and don’ts of the upper class etiquette. I was 15 and for the first time of my life madly in love. I would have done anything for that guy back then. (in case you are interested in the do’s amongst them are; you never use loanwords from other countries, to a wedding you wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, you drink tea at 3, you never ever say enjoy your meal or turn up the central heating).
When in Rome, you do as the Romans.
But etiquette is a code of behavior and conventional norms that precisely delineates expectations of social behavior within a society or social group. And in the family of my ex-boyfriend it was immediately clear when behavior was learned instead of raised. That’s why it was extremely important to surround yourself with like-minded people who would belong to the same background and share similar habits and values. Of course except for their familiar approach to nanny’s, au-pairs and cleaners. But that are NOKD’s, not of our kinds, darling. We pay them, but in fact we rather look away from their ordinary lives. Quickly I understood that you can change your behavior but you can never change your behavioral patterns. It is a bit like our online identity nowadays. It looks good from the outside, but when you take a closer look everybody sees that reality is being manipulated. We rather see something else.
Afterwards in my student time, I joined an upper class student association, Vindicat. It was somehow ambiguous and surreal to experience how thousands of young students who grew up in more or less the same social group developed this so called old values, morals and virtues into nowadays society and student life. Upfront sexual harassment, physical abuse and widely accepted mental abuse where everyday’s business. You where either in, or out. Group pressure kept hundreds of students more busy with being socially accepted then with the scandals which more often seem to happen to people just outside of your inner circle. I was curious how people would act after this fraternity period. I spent a week sitting outside cleaning the balcony precisely with a toothbrush while a few senators treated me like a dog. It was the same curiosity that kept me going during my fraternity hazing which dragged me into politics ten years later. How do people interact under a form of pressure and what exactly defines power?
When I brought this topic up at a period in time that the scandals about the fraternity period of this student association were daily news, at an event where almost everyone was a senior of that same student’s corps, nobody replied. People rather looked away. On the contrary, the way the wider public was morally responding on this news was almost perverse.
It is precisely that dynamic why politicians and journalists always focus on framing the lacks and differences on a broad scale and why we never seem to find that fine equilibrium. We trade off values for power and pennies for social acceptance. Politicians blame the system and we blame them. The same goes for the recent ‘news’ about the sharing of data. Everybody who is educated knows that sharing data is already here for a few decades and is undoubtedly here to stay. We are all driving on the left side off the highway. Everything should go faster. Your deliveroo meal, the uploading of your we-transfer file, the data on your sports app or the wifi in your hostel. So why are we all upset that we created our own closed circle of business models with information we shared for years? Water flows downhill.
But this looking away and pointing out is not only strongly represented within families, social groups or politics. You can see it everywhere down the street. When you walk through the old neighborhoods of India, Sri-Lanka or Indonesia and you stop by for a cup of tea and end up talking about the colonial past you feel the shame and the unease about the reality back then. People rather look away. When you continue your stroll and you walk down the stairs and see someone lying there dying out of hunger. You rather look away.
It is a poignant detail that the Indians, with their strong caste system and endless poverty have the least tendency to look away. Even the poorest people have a certain sense of belonging. Maybe they have nothing to lose. At the end of the day, you will never belong to another caste, so why should you change your behavioral patterns?
So this looking away, it seems that it is deeply rooted in all of us. We all look away and in a certain way we look away from ourselves the most. In the first place; why do we do that?
With the introduction of the internet as a vast part of our lives nowadays everybody has their hours of fame in a self created online environment. Is our self-awareness nowadays more based upon others? Do we see ourselves more and more through the lens of another eye? Is our behavior based upon the fact from what we think is appropriate, attractive and socially accepted? It seems that everyday we strive for a better version of ourselves. We set goals, make fit-plans, to become better, smarter, thinner or more effective.
But does that make us feel better about ourselves?
You only have to take a glimpse at the latest health care results of the WHO to see that depression and anxiety-disorders are becoming fast the number 1. mental health disease in the most developed countries. Depression or anxiety makes people feel utterly lonely and look older than they are. They are constantly so worried that someone finds out that they are depressed or anxious that they put a vast amount of time and energy in covering this up. Energy they do not have. And which makes them feel even more empty and isolated.
How do we replace this loneliness with happiness? How do we fill a cup which is already full? How do we break the glass between you and me, between our individual consciousness and the bigger divine? And what will sooth us in our ever-present lonely hours?
Is this the reason why we fall in love? Isn’t it so that every fall in love involves the triumph of hope over our self-knowledge? We hope we won’t find in another person what we dislike about ourselves; our weakness and laziness, our dishonesty and cowardliness. We throw a cordon of love around our beloved one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of faults. And we feel betrayed when this illusion falls apart.
However, to be loved deeply by someone means to realize how much they share the same need that lies at the heart of our own attraction to them. Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because from the outside they look so whole. So emotionally together. When we feel so dispersed and confused. We would not love if there was no lack within us. But we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other person. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.