Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I Wonder What You Think I Think

fields of cacti on the vast desert floor

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to an article titled: "Life's Lessons to Unlearn." The article debunks some commonly held beliefs that often govern how people behave as being harmful and destructive to living fruitful and happy lives.  I was particularly struck by one life-lesson to be unlearned: "It matters what people think of me." 

When I was teaching Interpersonal Communication courses, we would spend a few classes focusing on the many (meta) layers involved in the communication process.  The theory is that when people communicate with one another, they operate out of at least three layers of perception: "What I think," "what I think you think," and "what I think you think I think." 

We strive to be highly esteemed by others. We want people to like us; and so, we are always adapting what we think and tailoring our image on the basis of what we think others think of us. We adapt our communication (what we say and do) in order to fit the model of what we think the other person thinks about us so we can be held in high esteem. 

The thing is, of course, when you live your life constantly building up an image that you "think" will be favorable in the eyes of other persons, you will always be anxious and "on guard." You will never be able to truly be genuine and authentic. This is unhealthy and destructive for everyone.  

Besides all that, the truth is that that most of the time, most people don't have much if any opinion at all about "me;" and "what I think you think I am thinking" is pure fantasy and imagination.  It is only when I have the most bloated of egos that I  really believe that other people are spending their days paying attention to how highly they think of "me." 

So it's true, a life lesson to be unlearned is that false and very egoic belief that "it matters what other people think about me." 

As I sat in the middle of my desert surroundings and read that "recently written" article yesterday,  I chuckled to myself, because this life lesson to be unlearned had indeed been unlearned many centuries ago by those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers - those ancient Christians who moved out into the wilderness, out to the fringes of church and society, in order to live more "authentic" lives as followers of Jesus.

The common life of these ancient monastics was governed by an underlying rule, often referred to as the "disciple of indifference."  In society (and in the church) the opinion of others mattered a great deal. However, out on the fringes of the desert, these ancient monks were literally unfazed by what other people thought about them. They were totally "indifferent" about whether or not others held them in high esteem.

In fact there are numerous (and often humorous) stories about people from the city who, having heard of the holiness of these desert dwelling monks, would venture out into the wilderness to meet them - to seek their counsel and pay them homage.  But when the city-dwellers arrived in the wilderness, the monks would often disguise themselves, sometimes portraying themselves as beggars or even raving lunatics so as not to be recognized and honored.  

The desert, after all, is a vast and uncontrollable place. The seemingly boundless desert floor, the vast towering mountains of stone have been there for ages. The desert pays no attention to, and is indifferent to the people who dwell there.  The desert indeed is not a place where the ego can thrive, and that's why it is such a holy place, such a spiritual place, such a good place to unlearn the lesson that "it matters what people think of me."

At the end of the article I read yesterday, the author asked, "How would it feel and what would you do if you really believed that what people think of you doesn't really matter at all?"

It's a great question.

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