man in dark tunnel holding a light
Tunnel vision.

Oh my goodness, it’s so hard to avoid. You’re living inside yourself. You have your worldview. You have the worldview handed down to you by your parents and upbringing and childhood experiences. And you may have an altered worldview that you adopted during the transition to adulthood, or as significant changes and learning experiences occurred in your life.

These worldviews are valuable. They help you navigate your life. But it’s very, very difficult to see outside of them. And it’s very, very difficult to test whether they are accurate: whether they match reality, or whether they are just lies you are telling yourself for purposes of rationalization or merely habit.

Oh, yes—we humans are very good at making up stories about ourselves, other people, and our world. But we are very bad at testing the truth of our made-up stories, and altering them, as needed, to match truth.

Now, making up stories is an essential part of being human and keeping society intact. (See my post The Only Glue That Holds Strangers Together for insight on the link between myth and society.) But to forge a better life, and to form a more just society, it is so, so important to strive to match up our inner stories to the actual world out there.

Exposing tunnel vision.

Mary Gaitskill, a famous, and perhaps even infamous (in a good way!), American author, is genius at exposing the human tendency toward tunnel vision. Her collection of short stories Bad Behavior, published three decades ago, is just as relevant today as it was in the 80’s. Last week, I shared its astoundingly perfect opening sentence in my post Men and Women, Good and Bad, and Pleasure. Today, I would like to share a passage from another brilliant story in the book, “A Romantic Weekend.”

The title “A Romantic Weekend,” it becomes increasingly clear as the reader progresses through the story, is totally ironic. The weekend that was supposed to be romantic is a disaster. And it’s a disaster because the two people traveling together have tunnel vision. They can’t clearly see and understand each other. Worse, they can’t clearly see and understand themselves.

One of the most fabulous moments in the story occurs as the couple is sitting in an airport bar, waiting for their flight to board. They have a brief, awkward conversation, and then they pause to do a bit of people watching:

“There were only a few customers in the bar; most of them were men in suits who sat there seemingly enmeshed in a web of habit and accumulated rancor that they called their personalities, so utterly unaware of their entanglement that they clearly considered themselves men of the world, even though they had long ago stopped noticing it.”

What lovely, insightful writing! And so, as the two main characters repeatedly fail to overcome their tunnel vision, they watch other people who are also lost in their own separate tunnels.

There’s more than one way to practice social distancing, folks.

Do your stories about yourself, other people, and society match up with reality? How can you tell?