Life in the Context of Others


Nobody has a clue what they’re doing. We pretend we do. We go through life acting as if we know exactly where we’re stepping next, but at best every move we make is an educated guess, and at worst we are flailing around in the dark, trying desperately not to let the panic show on our faces. And sometimes, very rarely, you meet someone who’s just flying through life having a whale of a time.

The things is, there are people out there who would like us to believe that they know how things work. Or at least, that they know how things are supposed to work. They confidently tell us that there are rules that need to be followed, and we put our faith in them because we are vividly aware that we don’t have a clue ourselves and we need all the help we can get.

Some of these people are parts of institutions, and some of these people genuinely want to help us. I’m sure that most teachers really care about the futures of the children they’re teaching. Others – politicians for example – simply don’t have a fucking clue, but they think they know better than the rest of us because they’re confident and cocksure, so they tell us stand back and leave it to them. And like fools, we do.

And behold, the cocksure cock the whole thing up.

But before this descends into a rant about how the so-called ‘political elite’ aren’t fit for purpose, let’s bring this thing back on track. We don’t know where we going or what we’re doing, and so we look to those who appear to have their act together for any kind of guidance. We look to them for some sort of nod of approval or, if we’re lucky a bit of direction. And because we’re so unsure of ourselves, so nervous about taking a step into the darkness, because we’ve been told that danger lurks around every corner and we think we’re not good enough, w become paralysed without their validation.

Our decisions about what clothes we’re going to wear are based less on what clothes we like, and more on what we think people will approve of. The decision about who to vote for in the next election is based less on what we believe is right or wrong, and more about what our friends think, what the newspapers tell us to think, who is spending them most on campaigning. Our major life decisions are based on what our parents think, what our friends are doing, what we think we are supposed to – would our father be proud of us if we took this job?

And all of these things hold us back. They instil us with fear that prevents us from just being us. And what happens is, guided by the notion of what we think we’re supposed to do, we fall into line and start living an inauthentic life. We clone ourselves with shirts and ties for a day in the office while the more fun outfits gather dust in a box under the bed. We deny our nature as unique, amorphous, spiritual beings and attempt to square the circle and fit ourselves into uniform boxes. Tribes. Cliques. Cliches. Categories. Demographics.

There is safety in numbers so we seek to disappear into the crowd.

We work in an office so we must dress like this. I sit at a desk all day so I must behave like this. I am part of a social group and I can’t wear these cool shoes but my friends will judge me? I want to paint myself gold and dance-walk down the middle of the road screaming show tunes, but I’d be a little bit embarrassed. I want to embrace my uniqueness, but what would people think?

What would people think?

Living in the context of others – living life as defined by our own assumed rules of what we think other people think we should do – means that we are living an inauthentic mishmash of a life that isn’t us and isn’t ours. And what happens when we do that? We get to forty and have a midlife crisis. We spin into depression because we don’t know what we want anymore – but it certainly isn’t this. We live a life that doesn’t reflect our true potential, and our results mirror this loss of opportunity and wasted potential.

The irony is that, when we spend so much time seeking the validation of others and trying to please other people, most of the time we don’t succeed. We try so hard to do the things that will make other people happy, that we don’t even realise that they’ve been looking the other way the whole time. While we’ve been trying to live up to their expectations, they’ve been busy trying to deal with their own shit. It’s only when we fuck up that they notice us and they aren’t impressed, standing over us where we’ve tripped up, tutting and judging. And the whole reason we fucked in the first place up because we’ve been living inauthentically. If you wear someone else’s shoes you’re gonna fall over.

But when we stop seeking the approval of others we are more likely to get it. When we start strutting our stuff, doing our thing, finding a path through life that interests us, that resonates with what we value – in the context of our genuine selves – then we start to become interesting to all those people whose opinion we no longer care about. And what’s even better, we don’t care that they are interested and approving of us, because we’re busy doing our own thing, and their approval – if we even cared – is now just an extra bonus, rather than a linchpin upon which our entire identity is hanging.

When we stop giving a toss about the opinion of others and start living for ourselves, we find out who we truly are. We find success in all kinds of different ways, because what we’re doing resonates with people who are aligned with our values, and we’re no longer try to align what we do with the values of others. But even that doesn’t matter because we’re happy, and we’ve found happiness in ourselves rather than trying to find it in others.

When we start to be authentically us, life steps up to meet us. But it’s not easy and requires a certain amount of bravery. A certain amount of reaching blindly into the darkness. A certain amount of stepping out of our comfort zone.

As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, we should all “do one thing every day that scares you” because it’s in this space that we find our true selves waiting for us to catch up. So next time you find yourself worrying what people will think if you do ‘the thing’ then it’s a sign that you absolutely must do ‘the thing’. Next time you worry about trying to fit in, it’s absolutely a sign that you must try to stand out. Next time you find yourself thinking in the context of others, snap out of it and go and do something scary.

Hug a tree. Write a book. Sing a song. Audition for a play. Paint yourself green and dance-walk down the street singing show tunes.

Live life. Be authentically you.