Early in 2017, a friend sent me an article about Egon Schiele. I am not interested in art in most cases but I decided to read the article and it struck me. It was not until the end of the year after reading The Stranger by Albert Camus that I began deeply thinking about the interconnection of everything in our lives with those around us and ultimately the history of our era.
The article explained that records from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts show that Egon Schiele was chosen over another candidate. That candidate? Adolf Hitler.
The Stranger begins with a scene in which a son, Meursault, journeys to his mother’s nursing home to attend her wake. The story ends with his behavior at the wake-having a cup of coffee with milk, smoking cigarettes, and dozing off-causing him to be condemned by society.
These two recollections, one fictional and one actual, show how seemingly innocuous things can lead to grave events.
It is anxiety inducing to think that everything we do (and do not do) and everything going on around us has consequences that we are not in control of nor can foresee. People often ask me why I am serious or why I do not actively participate in things or interact with people beyond the necessary professional obligations I have and this is why. I do not want to be the grain of sand that turns into the snowball rolling down the mountain.
The admissions officer at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts who admitted Schiele had no way of knowing that the rejected candidate would go on to help orchestrate the genocide of over 6 million people. Just as Meursault, nor any of us, would ever imagine that having a cup of coffee or taking a nap could go on to seal our fate.
Blaise Pascal and many other philosopher’s have commented on this phenomenon too. The face of history changed because of the length of Cleopatra’s nose. The size of Cleopatra’s nose was determined by the unique combination of genes produced by her parents and on and on and on. This is an even more interesting example than the previous two because no person had the ability to change the size of Cleopatra’s nose. Chance-the unique pairing of her mother and father’s genes-caused her facial structure. Obviously, this is a simplification-she wasn’t a mute, inactive person who only affected other’s by her looks, but it does spark questions about public perception, attraction, initial actions, and ultimately the level of control we have.
Do the perceptions of and reactions to our looks, words, and actions have more control over circumstances than our looks, words, and actions in and of themselves?
Our lives and all lives are Rube-Goldberg Machines.
Each simple action influences a situation leading to another action. Individually, those actions-a marble rolling down a ramp, a comment to a person on the bus, a cup of coffee, eye contact with a stranger on the street-have no immediate consequences but they lead to other things that impact history, on both the micro and macro level.
This phenomenon can be responsible for good things too, of course. The conundrum is, we do not know how any action, positive or negative, will affect those around us. Of course, there are actions, good and bad, which have immediate consequences but largely our daily actions and conversations do not have immediate consequences. They are pebbles being dropped into a vessel of water, slowly causing the level to rise. However, we have no way of knowing how our actions will land. We are only responsible for ourselves, but even actions and words we perceive as positive and good can be perceived by others as negative and bad therefore leading to negative consequences.
When I was younger, I was much less self-conscious about how my life affected those around me. As I’ve gotten older my consciousness of my presence and the impact I could have has increased exponentially and I am often overwhelmed by the idea that something I do will change the perception others have of me and how it could go on to negatively impact my life or the lives of others. It is quite narcissistic. I know that I am not an admissions officer at a college nor am I on trial, but the fact of the matter is, other’s perceptions of us, our opinions and how we choose to voice them, and the minor choices we make, do in fact affect the world in uncontrollable ways.
I teeter wildly between the realization that my actions will inevitably affect the world beyond my control and therefore I should not fret about them and the idea that I alone am in control of the things I do and therefore am ultimately responsible for the consequences my words and actions have.
This stretches through history. Ignoring Cleopatra, publica fama or reputation and it’s incredibly important role in Medieval law (and therefore current law, as much as we may like to deny it) through the formation of the public sphere in the salons and coffee houses of Enlightenment and Industrial-Revolution era Europe as illuminated by Jürgen Habermas, were each impacted by public perception. Even in today’s formation of virtual reputations online, our words, actions, and demographic categories affect how we are perceived and the amount of power our words and actions have.
With one viral video or one popular Tweet or one shitty comment to a coworker or one compliment to a stranger, we each can become Cleopatra’s nose, the acceptance letter, or the cup of coffee with milk.
My question this week is how do you handle this? Are you fearless and indifferent to the perceptions of others? Do you act according to your own personal moral or religious code without worry? Do you stay up at night paralyzed by how your actions or words may have affected others? How do you deal with the Rube-Goldberg Machine that is your daily life?
Talk to y’all next time!