Thoughts on personality and ways of interacting with the world around us.
Section 1 — On Hunting and Gathering
I can be completely honest and say that these observations are taken almost exclusively from the experience of being married to my wife for these past 8 years. Also that everything i say has probably been said before and probably was said better than, but I feel the need to write my thoughts out for myself.
Describing people is tricky because we all exist as a convergence of an infinite amount of ever changing gray scales. But, just like the elusive electron, most of us can be observed to usually occupy a certain predictable area that we can attempt to describe, if not define, while still leaving the wide universe as a possibility.
I have observed that my wife and I (and i think most people) have certain ways of gathering and processing information about the world around them. I realize that both those processes represent gray scales of themselves and that they are 2 in a sea of attributes but I would hazard to say that they should be considered as more important or more telling than some of the others. I say that because i feel like whether you prefer to believe nurture or nature makes us do the things we do, the most important factor in what we do is what we observe. And I would say that what we observe isn’t nearly as universal as what we tend to think.
Here’s what I’m getting at, most of us will observe a bear close up as a threat. Because we all have the same internal biological wiring concerning animals larger than ourselves. But most situations that we face in the 21st century aren’t that straightforward. The same dinner party that looks perfectly normal and safe to you may look like a very dangerous situation to me. This has something to do with our natural tendencies toward people but I think it also has to do with what information we are gathering and how it’s being processed.
My wife has big beautiful blue eyes that observe everything around her for almost 180 degrees, My eyes are smaller, sunk back in deeper sockets and i struggle to make out things that she can see clearly. It just so happens that this really matches our information gathering styles. She see’s everything around her, and hears it and smells it and feels it, and takes in every bit of available data around herself. It all creates an incredibly detailed picture in her mind. When she remembers situations she remembers the sights surrounding the situation and the colors and smells and feelings in incredible detail. She also has an incredible faculty for storage and retrieval of all this information. She has memories from when she was 3!
I on the other hand, have a much more focused attention. I take my day as a series of objectives, and the information that I gather is directly related to the goal in mind, everything else is filtered out. This is as true for a business meeting as it is for a day in the park with my family. In fact I struggle and feel nervous and fidgety when the objective is unclear. And I have an amazing knack for remembering narrative. I could make you an outline of the story, but will usually just recreate the details based on my assumptions of what is probably correct given what i consider the “relevant” information.
As a result between the two of us I will remember the series of events but my wife will correct me on the details, and when she tells the story i will feel the urge to correct her version of the sequence of events (I have however, learned to swallow this unhelpful impulse:).
So given that in most situations we are gathering such vastly different quantities and types of information, how does that information get processed and used? To begin again with my wife, for her, the vast waves of data are extremely useful for creating an understanding of the overall situation and how she should feel about it. I use the word “feel” very intentionally, because that’s how the information in organized. The feeling of well being, or uneasiness, or excitement or fearfulness, is a result of her mind organizing all that data and giving it back to her conscious self in a way that can be understood and acted upon. This makes so much sense if we think about the first 99% of human history. Until very recent history, death was something that happened to people all the time in completely unexpected ways. Someone like my wife who can see everything and then some, and instantly create a tangible plan for action is much more likely to survive. Maybe a smell or feeling or movement in the grass along the path, or sound or absence of sounds gives information that is only available to the alert. And more so — only usable by someone whose brain can do something useful with that information- “this is not safe, be careful”.
Now consider me, the thoughtful wanderer. I only collect data relevant to the task at hand. Any extra information is extremely harmful to the progress of whatever I’m working on. As I write this im actually wearing big headphones with loud music in a corner just so i can avoid seeing anything but the screen of my computer and can’t hear what’s going on in my house. I’m very good at finding and processing information based on a goal, as long as I’m undistracted. Im my life and work people find that im useful on a team because I can (given some time and space) understand the problem or confusing situation and create a clear plan for moving forward. But lets go back to that same stretch of path. All that available information is just waiting to be gathered by my senses and indeed is gathered. But it is discarded as unimportant because i am focused only on getting down the path, or what i will do at the end of it, or more likely something abstract and altogether unrelated to my life. I continue on into the danger and eventually realize that something is different. Then I have to find the data and go about quantifying it until eventually i find that i should be afraid and maybe run away — by that time the lions have been circling for quite a while and my window of escape is quickly dissolving.
A more relatable example of this principle is driving down the highway at night. Driving at night is not a problem for me. The information I need to know to drive safely is the curve of the road and where the other cars are. That information is almost always readily available because of the reflective lines on the highway and the taillights of other cars. I’m actually a better driver at night because i am much less distracted.
My wife abhors driving at night. I didn’t understand that at all until one night when we were on a long road trip and we had a chance to talk about it at some length. It’s pretty simple. She feels like she is about to drive off a cliff when she can’t see the road ahead. Notice I again use the word “feels” because she knows that there isn’t a cliff ahead, she doesn’t “think” there is a cliff. The darkness beyond the headlights is a big unknown in her mind. Her brain is starving for all the data it needs to create a useful feeling. My brain is happy to finally be in a situation devoid of distraction, with a clear objective and a clear uncluttered data set.
Now you can imagine, and you would be right, that this has created some tension in our relationship. We are both learning about each other and how to do the difficult task of communication. Lets go back the path in the field but this time we are walking along together, maybe even talking, but both of us collecting and processing the available information in completely different ways;
Scenario 1 — We walk along and she begins to feel unsafe on the path, and wants to turn back. At first she doesn’t say anything and tries to shake it off, but the feeling keeps returning. So she decides to say something — “I don’t feel good about this path, we need to turn around.” I respond with a flippant — “the path is safe” and continue on as if problem solved. She continues to receive “DANGER!” messages from her brain and so again decides to say something “I just don’t feel good about this…” We then proceed to argue, “why not? whats wrong?”, “I don’t know it just doesn’t feel safe”, “What? that doesn’t make any sense!” We continue on, maybe she tries to rationalize her fears with some story she heard which i dismiss, I try to assure her that the path is safe and we really need to get to where we are going. She gets angry and hurt that I won’t listen to her. We stop communicating and whoever is the most stubborn will force the other one to comply. At this point we are now actively working against each other. Our strengths have just become our weaknesses. If we do anything else the likelihood of it being the best option are slim at best.
Scenario 2 — We walk along and she begins to feel unsafe on the path, she wants to turn back. She stops and tells me that she doesn’t want to keep going. Here instead of dismissing her input I do something different. We stop, we do our best to speak to each other in ways we can each understand. “What makes you want to turn around?”, “I’m not sure… something doesn’t feel right”. “Okay, a lot of time you pick on things that i can’t see so we need to think about that, but we also really need to get to where we are going. let’s find a safe way to keep going.” We proceed to talk about all the available options and pick the one that makes the most sense. Notice — I didn’t change our plan to “make her feel better” we changed the plan because we both recognized that it was in our best interest. Our strengths our now working together in such a way as to multiply their effectiveness instead of kill it.
This is an altogether familiar type of conversation for us. And it’s something that we are learning to better all the time although one or both of us will often fall into the old patterns of conflict. There are also other patterns and pitfalls associated with our ways of “seeing” the world, she tends to struggle with anxiety, I struggle with apathy, she tends to feel the need to be accepted by the group, I tend to find ways to overly critical of people. In different situations we struggle to both be our best selves and help each other to be our best selves. But thinking critically about how we differ and learning how to understand and appreciate those differences is making all the difference.