“Elliot Cabot’s paper on ‘Art’ has given emphasis to one point among others, that people only see what they are prepared to see.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson (Journals)
A few weeks ago, on my way into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal, I passed my housemate watching TV.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Parks and Rec. You seen it?”
I trotted out a line I’d said before: “I tried, but I was teaching high school, so by the time I got home I didn’t want any more awkward.”
They laughed, and told me if I ever started, I shouldn’t start with the first season.
Somewhere in This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff points out how hard we all work to make other people see and agree with our version of reality. We interpret the kid who fell asleep in class as lazy and disrespectful, or exhausted, and then try to convince each other that our interpretation is the one that matches what’s ‘out there.’ We’re not just saying what the kid did: we’re constructing who we understand him to be.
My thought about Parks and Rec falls apart as soon as I actually look at it. For one thing, I didn’t know much about the show: I might as well have been describing the social habits of wallabies. For another, the word “awkward” troubles me—I still can’t pin down a definition, and as a concept “awkward” seems to make connecting with people harder, not easier. Most importantly, if I try to apply the vague definitions of “awkward” people have explained to me, it doesn’t fit highschoolers any more than people in their 20s. Or 30s. Or 50s. If anything, I think calling highschoolers awkward might be one way our society shoves aside young people’s worries and experiences, their hurts, and the possibilities they push for. When I look at what I was saying, I don’t like it at all. So why was I repeating it?
Comfort, I suppose. I pick up and defend reality-constructions for all different reasons. Sometimes it’s because I’ve carefully thought about something, and come up with a perspective that I think is useful or accurate or important. Sometimes it’s because I’m too scared to consider another possibility. Sometimes it’s because I want to be part of a group, and my group believes this way. Sometimes it’s because I’ve never stopped to wonder about it. Sometimes it’s because I want the world to be simple, to be as I’ve said, so my choices make obvious sense and I can skip past thinking and get some cereal. That’s strange, and ever since the conversation, I’ve been turning it over.
Oh, and I’ve started watching Parks and Rec.