Sentient Tigers Wouldn’t Have It Any Better

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” ~E.E. Cummings

Do you believe in sacrificing humans to the gods? Do you believe slavery is just? Are women more physically beautiful than men? Should everyone have the right to vote? What are your standards of personal hygiene, social etiquette, or physical appearance?

The ancient Greeks deified men for their physical beauty. The most enlightened minds of the eighteenth century owned slaves. Only a hundred years ago women had no say in public elections. Afros were once popular. Why? These societal norms are not genetic borne. Nature remains silent regarding justice, equality, and hairstyle preference. Instead, it is the social environment that establishes our moral framework. Social validation is the true north that orients our ethical compass.

Social criticism, then, is validation’s counterpart. These two opposing forces establish and anchor many of our beliefs, opinions, habits, and character traits. They effectively determine our cultural identity.

Social validation is a currency without fixed denomination. One person’s smile can mean more than a gold plated trophy from a prestigious organization. Validation is subtle. It can be imparted with a nod, or denied through impassivity. Facebook lets us stash it like kernels of corn in a silo, but sometimes we burn through it like a swarm of locusts through a wheat field. Too much validation and we become fat with narcissism and arrogance. Too little and we become sick with depression and loneliness. Throughout our lives, our dependence on social validation will fluctuate constantly. Social validation is the wind that every plant in our psyche bows to.

The strengths and weaknesses of our character are often determined by the validation or criticism we receive. Let’s take intelligence as an example. When children do well early in school, they’re praised by their parents and teachers. These students learn to seek validation in academic achievement. They become the ‘smart’ kids. Other students seek validation elsewhere; in athletic prowess, physical attractiveness, comedic indifference, rebellious nonconformity, etc. Whatever the aim, people will gravitate that way if their social worth depends on it. This process looks like the emergence of inherent traits, of immutable facets of the soul, but it is merely the result of those children settling into roles like Bingo balls bouncing down wire chutes. Every quality of our personality is susceptible to this influence. They grow like pearls in a clam shell, slowly, slowly, one thin layer of lacquer at a time.

This is how social validation conditions us into the people we are. Not only do we learn not to suck our thumbs or chew with our mouths open. We learn our social worth, our boldness, our reticence, our confidence, and the hundred other facets of human character. Our dispositions are carved by the sharp knife of others’ perceptions.

The reason the pettiness of highschool, the social game, doesn’t end there is because the craving for validation, which is at the heart of this game, is an enormous influence on our lives. It is a much deeper pull that transcends the classroom. The social push and pull is a human phenomenon, not an academic one. Grade school is just the first time we play, and only a lucky few do well at something their first time.

The tie binding us to the opinions of others is demonstrated by how we react emotionally, positively or negatively, to others’ statements. We learn from an early age to build a defense against direct insults, but more subtle underhanded criticisms will always potentially find their way under our skin. Even an offhand comment can lodge itself in a deep dark nook of our minds, take root, and grow into an insecurity.

Alternatively, statements that affirm us, and ones that align with our perception of ourselves, vivify us. Compliments are equally fecund seeds. A great tragedy is that this is a world in which we spend a lot of time with relative strangers who are blind to our noble qualities. They are much more likely to glimpse our folly. Tragically an uncommon blunder often shines brighter than subdued virtue. Ultimately we are all susceptible to flattery and charm just as we are all susceptible to ridicule and critique.

Humans are social creatures. This is as sociologically true as it is biologically. Besides hermits and recluses, we all seek the approval of others to some degree. To attempt to extricate ourselves from this need would be like training cats to wag their tails and chase tennis balls. The real question is, ‘how can we be anything but victims to the conditioning influence of social validation?’

The answer is by using the gift of self reflection. By challenging the assumptions you make about yourself, by observing your emotional reactions to different situations, and by consciously altering patterns of thought you can slowly begin to override habits ingrained by years of social conditioning. It takes a tolerance for discomfort, and in many cases a certain boldness, to break the mold of your character. But it can be done. And any trait can be changed in time.

Taking advantage of the mechanisms of social validation:

The best way to receive validating attention is to impart it on others first. When you dispute the opinions of others, it puts them in a defensive state that makes it nearly impossible for them to understand and appreciate your own. When you validate the opinions of others, they open up to true dialogue.

Validation is not the same as agreement. Validation is bestowed through understanding. In practice it requires suspending your own paradigms, beliefs, opinions, and insights. Strip yourself of filters. Resist the urge to establish truth. Listen, and seek to understand what the other person is saying, even if they’re a raving lunatic. I’ve charmed many raving lunatics because I didn’t insist on combating every insane notion that fell from their lips.

The first step is one of restraint. Because of our inherent thirst for social validation, we always want to talk about ourselves, our views, our opinions, our ideologies, our jokes, our plans for the future, our stories of triumph. But no one is heard with everyone shouting at the top of their lungs. Only by suppressing this craving, and granting full attention to the other person, can true conversation begin. By stalling your need for validation, you engender its bestowal.

However, it does no good to listen insincerely only waiting patiently for your turn to speak. You must seek to understand. This often requires forsaking objective reality. What you are doing is entering the other person’s world. In their world, their opinions are law. Don’t panic. Don’t worry. Letting them describe big foot sightings, Karmic balance, past lives, how vaccines cause autism, astrological predictions, or Jesus’ divinity, without disproving it won’t invalidate your own beliefs. The world as you know it remains unchanged. So suspend your disbelief for a minute, let them speak, and attempt to understand their ideas as they do.

Understanding people is a slow, subtle means to earning their respect, but it is powerful. It takes time silencing judgment. But when you strengthen your ability to understand different people, you also strengthen your ability to sympathize with them. When you can sympathize with someone’s present condition, you can increase your capacity to accept them. Do this by understanding that the environment in which they’ve lived has crafted them to be exactly how they are. They are not an inherently sinful or ‘bad’ person. No one is. The more you expose yourself to the wide array of people that live on this planet, the more understanding and accepting you can be. Each new person you meet is a brush stroke on the mural of humanity. Exert yourself to find all the different colors, pay heed to even the tiniest of brushes, and your painting of humanity will be more vibrant, and more accurate.

We are all islands of consciousness seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling the world around us, making judgments, forming beliefs, and hypothesizing causes and effects. To have someone understand a thought of ours validates it. Right or wrong, true or false, fact or fiction matters little and matters rarely. Once we feel validated, we can appreciate the ideas of another. We build rapport with people that validate us because we love to see in others what we know of ourselves. It just takes one person willing to listen for this process to work.

The tension of sentience:

Humans inherited their social orientation from their distant biological ancestors. Primates are social creatures who’s survival depended on the smooth operation of the group. This group mentality ran smoothly and went undisturbed for countless centuries. Then Homo Sapiens were fractured by sentience.

With sentience came our concept of individuality. As individuals, we have the indispensable craving for self expression. But we simultaneously retain our group mentality wherein we feel an insatiable need to fit in. When the idiosyncrasies of our individuality do not harmonize with our group, we feel it as judgment. So we are perpetually fascinated with uniqueness, but can’t stand the cold isolation of nonconformity to hold onto it for long. The author finds this dichotomy hilariously delightful.

Perhaps if a solitary animal like tigers had achieved sentience, they wouldn’t feel such tension. Perhaps they’d roam the streets of their civilization with pristine assurance, as true masters of their world, because they’d be unaffected by the notions of their fellows. Or maybe that society would be stagnant and uncreative, unable to agree on a fundamental moral code. Maybe it was the tumultuous interplay of our varied perspectives, combined with our need for group cohesion, that allowed humans to construct all the wonderful and endlessly faceted cultures of the world.

On a final note, social validation is to self confidence what accomplishment is to self esteem. Self esteem is the fruit-bearing orchard that nourishes you when validation is sparse or absent. When bearing the chill of loneliness, remember the triumphs you’ve had, the skills you’ve mastered, the experiences that have made you strong. Remember those things that make you smile to yourself, that make you feel competent and loved when there’s no one around. With that, and a little faith in the future, the snows of loneliness will blow by quickly.

As for me? I embrace singularity. I have chosen to exist by exception. It is indeed cold in this distant orbit. It is shaky on these tenuous limbs so far from the trunk. Few venture here for a visit. But the fish that swim these deep, lonely waters are more vibrant, inspirational, and nourishing. I warm myself on logs of self esteem. I assent to my lonely station, and connect when I can.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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