Perception Bias

eye

 

While I would never describe my father as straight-laced, in most ways he’s your typical retired, former nine-to-five working dad. He was the primary breadwinner of the family, and worked nearly three decades as a special education teacher. My father wore ties and slacks, brought his lunch to work to save money, and read Russian novels like The Brothers Karamazov to relax. He’s a man who can answer virtually every question on Jeopardy while balancing his modest but respectable investment portfolio.

But on his days off from work, my dad typically wore an old leather biker’s jacket sporting pewter skulls and crossbones across the shoulders. He has long hair he lets down on the weekends. He once partied with the Moody Blues, and accidentally helped police catch a fugitive. I say accidentally because, at the time, he was unaware of the fact that the man who tried to start a bar fight with him was in the process of being chased by the cops.

My dad was thirty-one when I was born. I’m twenty-eight, and though I still feel young, I have also begun to feel the weight of the life I’ve lived thus far. I have memories spanning decades now, and I’ve noticed that I will draw knowledge gained from past experiences whenever I deal with new problems in my life.

I’m twenty-eight. My dad was thirty-one when I was born. He’d experienced an entire lifetime before I was even a conscious idea for him.

He’d settled down into the role of grad student and educator by the time I was born. I’ve only known him as the man who wore ties to work and taught me to spell, who bought flowers for my mother, and made restaurant reservations for two on their anniversary, who still routinely admonishes me for smoking. I see little more than shadows of the entity who existed before the man I know as Dad.

Once, while I smoked a cigarette, and after the usual lecture about how I needed to break my habit early, my father told me that he still has trouble seeing himself as a man with a pension and a stock portfolio. He said he never could get used to imagining himself as the guy in slacks and bifocals, who goes to work five days a week. I call the man he derides Dad. I cannot imagine him as anyone other than who he expressly says cannot be him.

 

***

 

I once had a manager who vocally prided herself on being willing to help whenever her employees needed her. She and I got along well, as did most of the other workers under her supervision. Generally, I viewed her as someone who stood by those who could use her help.

Then I watched as she systemically bullied a new hire one summer. She made this poor girl’s life a living hell for the four hours a day she worked. She would berate her for being unable to prepare orders she’d never been shown how to make. She snapped at her for mistakes she hadn’t actually made. She took sharp tones at every opportunity.

The girl stuck with the job longer than I would’ve thought. She was a seasonal worker, and when summer rolled to a close she found work elsewhere. All she left behind was a new light on a woman I’d previously respected.

 

***

 

People have acted shocked over various aspects of my personality that I consider mundane. I smoke, which horrifies many upon discovery. Some are surprised when I shatter their assumptions that I can play an instrument. My atheism surprises my church-going friends. My church attendance surprises my atheist friends. I’m so quiet about my personal life that most people only find out about dates I’ve had years after the relationship has come to a close. People tell me they can see me teaching philosophy at a university, or living like a hermit deep in the forest. A frankly astonishing number of my friends thought for several years that I worked as a librarian. I still don’t quite understand why.

I smoke cigarettes. I read scientific journals and tabloids. I watch public broadcasting and documentaries and cartoons and occasionally porn. I’m a scattershot being, as anyone ever can be.

 

***

 

Chronic anxiety doesn’t quite get the exposure clinical depression does, but the physical and psychological symptoms can be nearly as debilitating. When my meds don’t work, and an anxiety attack hits me, I’ll notice my heartbeat skyrockets for no reason. My arms and legs will shake, go cold, and then go numb. My chest will tighten and my breath will hitch, and then there won’t be a single task on Earth that will not seem insurmountable. Unlike with panic attacks, this can last for days.

Very basic, generic meds keep these symptoms manageable, thankfully with zero noticeable side-effects. The very few who have seen me when I openly acknowledged I was having an anxiety attack reacted with the kind of love and acceptance that made me feel brave enough to admit what was happening. They understand when I just want to stay in for the night, or when I just can’t bring myself to answer the phone. These moments are very rare, but they happen.

Few people know that chronic anxiety can also help you act like an absolute bastard. It would be childish of me to blame the anxiety for my personal petulance. The attacks may exacerbate your personal frustrations, but they don’t cause them.

As small as the number of people who have witnessed me experiencing an anxiety attack is, the number who have seen the effects they have on my mood is even smaller. There is no real excuse for hurting others, because ultimately you can choose to fume in silence. But there have been times when I chose to fume vocally, to people I loved, and every time after things were never quite the same.

I generally think of myself as a kind person. Experience tells me I’m not alone in that perception. But in the moments when I was needlessly cruel, the things I said were spoken in my voice.

 

***

 

I date about as often as anyone, which is to say there are brief moments when my general awkwardness doesn’t cause women to think of me as some kind of freakishly overgrown man-child.

I’ve been in love once so far, to someone who thankfully felt the same way. Even more fortunately, we felt the same way at the same time, for years on end. Can ya beat those odds?

The way I saw her and the way she saw herself contrasted sharply. She would criticize missteps of hers that I didn’t think had any significance. She would feel embarrassed over work she’d done that would blow me away. She’s intelligent and funny and made me feel more comfortable around her than I’ve ever felt around anyone, family included. She worried, and still does when we see each other, that she irritates me. She’ll always be my best and closest friend.

We think of ourselves as single beings, but we multiply with every new set of eyes we come across.

 

***

 

When I got my degree, my mother and sister took turns snapping photos with their phones. In one, I’m standing beside my dad. Black gown, ponytail, a beard and mustache My dad has since compared it to his own college graduation photo from the late seventies, and the similarities are admittedly kind of startling.

I look like the man my father used to see himself as. My dad looks like the man I’ve always known him to be. He smiles affably, leaning on his cane, his ball cap keeping the glare of the sun off his glasses. The person I trust more than anyone in the world would call the man in that photo a stranger.

We live through our own eyes. We soar through the eyes of others.

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1 Comment

Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

One response to “Perception Bias

  1. People like to pigeonhole people and are surprised (to varying degrees) when a person does something that falls out of the neat little category that they’ve stuffed a person into.

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