In Others Are Opportunities
On Shying Away and its Nefarious Consequences
To my eye, a picture can be worth 1,000 words — but, to ten people, the same picture can be worth 10,000.
And so is the beauty of people — especially when they come en masse.
The experience of an image — or anything tangible that evinces emotion and life, such as a movie, a play, or a simple moment on any given day — is heightened when many people huddle around it.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, National Geographic’s Afghan Girl, and Tiananmen Square’s Tank Man are some of thousands of notable pieces of visual artwork that have attracted the attention of millions.
And with every gaze that passes, new opinions are formed, good and bad.
But their significance doesn’t lie in what they are — mere paintings or pictures — but rather in the meanings they convey to each individual observer.
Social phenomena of all kinds, including systemic problems like the opioid epidemic or the broken criminal justice system, follow the same logic: The care and work they require is proportionate to the attention people give them.
Just today — to state an example of lesser, but nonetheless relevant, significance — I uploaded a new picture on Facebook for the first time in years, and the first thought that crossed my mind was, “What will all my Facebook friends think when they see the picture?”
Will they see the same beauty that I do, or will they merely focus on the improper lighting? And I asked these questions from a place of curiosity, not fear.
But I can understand why shying away from the masses prevents feelings of fear, anxiety, and distress. Around me — and at every step I take — judgments are distributed by people from all walks of life.
Journalists write vociferously about the politicians they oppose. Sports commentators shout about players who underperformed on any given Sunday. And friends, family, professors, and every other type of person share the same ability to critique and point fingers.
So, in many ways, who wouldn’t be deterred from the simple fact that people — when they come together — can create as much harm as they create good?
A solution to this problem is avoiding the masses altogether — interacting with them on a small scale and selective basis. In this way, limiting interactions to work colleagues and loved ones can certainly pave the way for a satisfactory life.
Moreover, this way of life has even been transposed from day-to-day experiences to the realm of social media, where users actively block or mute their followers — if only as a means for emotional self-preservation.
But I wonder if deliberately hiding oneself in society — and in competitive professional markets — does any good when both the hidden person and society have aligned incentives.
In other words, solitude, despite its benefits — such as in times of introspection, focused work, or tranquility — is not necessarily conducive to fuller grasping the phenomena around us. And if those phenomena require masses of people to interpret and work on them, acting with fear of the masses will be unavoidably debilitating.
Let’s consider climate change and its implications on the human species.
Would it be fair to think of the problem as solvable through a single angle? Or would it be more appropriate to necessitate a wide variety of perspectives and opinions to grasp and, ultimately, solve it?
The latter option is obviously the best — and it is by a long shot.
The challenge is to recognize that dissimilar people can have common interests and objectives. Feeling joy, having pleasant conversations, and living free of anxiety are desires most — if not all — people seek.
And the same goes for pressing social issues: Who exactly wants for the opioid epidemic to continue, and who wants for future generations to foresee the end of humanity?
Fear has often prevented me from leveraging the resources that others possess, either because I didn’t want their judgment or I found insufficient time to use others’ talents for the benefit of my endeavors. Now is the time my attitude needs to change, even if — at times — my vulnerabilities will get the best of me.
I hope I’ll see and meet likeminded people along this route of change — and learn from what they have to give to the world.