Many of us just fake our confidence and calm

Much has been written about the psychological impact of the honeyed lives that people project on Instagram, Facebook and other social media. Everyone’s at a party to which you haven’t been invited. Everyone’s children are excelling, everyone’s cakes are rising, everyone’s trip to Grand Cayman or the Grand Canyon was heaven on earth.
Representative Image
Representative Image

New York

It happens almost every day: A friend, an acquaintance or a complete stranger confides in me about a past struggle that only a few people in his or her life are privy to, about physical pain or emotional turmoil that almost nobody sees. It happened just the other day. Someone who’d always struck me as a portrait of unflappable confidence and unforced buoyancy told me for the first time about a medical misfortune that he suffered decades ago and repercussions from it that linger.
I was surprised by the details of his hardship but not by the fact of it. His story is my story. My story is many people’s stories. Our outward calm veils inner turbulence. Much of the confidence we project is a camouflage we perfect. And when you admit to that, you’re blessed with others’ admissions. You join an informal community of people eager or at least willing to embrace the messy and liberating truth. I joined it after suddenly losing some of my eyesight several years ago, being told that I might go blind and then writing about that. My account seemed to resonate with readers in part because my condition exemplified a public-private disconnect. Nothing about my composure or appearance suggested trouble. I met my deadlines. I honoured my obligations. My eyes looked the way they’d always looked. But they didn’t act the way they’d always acted. Never again would I read as fleetly and fluidly as before. Never again would I type with as much ease and as few errors.
That was the bad part. The good? Never again would I trust that I knew anything important about someone — or, really, anything at all — from what was evident on the surface.
I understand in a new and important way that struggle isn’t exceptional. It’s inevitable. It’s endemic. It’s our default setting. It’s just often hidden, and I wonder what life would be like if we all walked around wearing sandwich boards that listed what we’re enduring. What we’re surviving. What we’ve overcome.
That was the gist of an excerpt from my new book, “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found,” that The Times published on Tuesday. The excerpt comes from a chapter of “The Beauty of Dusk” titled “The Sandwich Board Theory of Life,” which posits that our moments of self-pity would be rarer and our capacity for empathy stronger if we knew the full truth of the people around us. Sometimes we simply can’t, but sometimes it’s a matter of looking more closely, listening more attentively, signalling an openness to that knowledge, asking the right questions. It entails a shift in perspective and a heightened awareness.
Much has been written about the psychological impact of the honeyed lives that people project on Instagram, Facebook and other social media. Everyone’s at a party to which you haven’t been invited. Everyone’s children are excelling, everyone’s cakes are rising, everyone’s trip to Grand Cayman or the Grand Canyon was heaven on earth.
I welcome the stories shared with me — by the record producer who, at the peak of his career, lost hearing in one ear, jeopardising his livelihood, or by the Vietnam veteran who sometimes feels acutely self-conscious, all these decades later, about the prosthesis where his lower leg used to be. They’ve been met with mighty challenges, but those trials aren’t obvious to most of the people around them. And I accept that my compromised, imperilled vision isn’t some extraordinary thing. It’s just my thing.

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