Jenny Block wrote Open, a personal account of a “normal” woman who discovered that there’s no such thing as normalcy in relationships and sexuality. A fascinating read from an analytical and definitively female perspective, the book recounts not just her private experience in opening her marriage to polyamory, but also the process of coming out and addressing the accompanying fears of social rejection.
Humans are fascinating creatures. Arguably the most social of all mammals, humans live in groups, work in groups, and play in groups. Our social networks are rarely random; we self-select according to one or more common traits, some that are relevant to our survival (like profession), some that matter to our way of life (like status and personal interests), and some that are just arbitrary (like love or hatred of the New York Yankees). Why?
I recently chatted with a former colleague, an attorney who also happens to be one of the smartest people I know. He thinks that the single most important human motivator – and perhaps what has defined the evolution of the species – is fear. From prehistoric humans’ fear of being trampled by a mastodon to modern humans’ fear of demise by nuclear war, terrorism, smallpox, global warming, deforestation, an asteroid impact with Earth – you name it, we fear it – it is fear that drives the subconscious that ultimately drives human action.
Group-forming has historically served as a healthy and species-proliferating response to fear. For example, the perfect antidote to fear of being eaten by a tiger was banding with other humans: safety in numbers. Thus people tend to be sheep who stick with the herd because it’s dangerous to walk alone. Or, at least it used to be.
Ironically, the strategy of forming groups, which was an effective tool during most of human evolution, is no longer useful against the vast majority of major human threats. Terrorism only works on large groups. Biological epidemics only spread in areas with sufficiently high population densities. Global warming might eliminate the beach-front cities of Florida but will only make the higher-elevation plains of the Midwest a little bit balmier. Nuclear war would destroy the largest cities. Food and water shortages and contamination will threaten urbanites long before they threaten country folk. And so on.
My point is not that groups aren’t worth forming; rather, that the chief motivations to form them in the first place are no longer relevant.
Generally speaking, what is good for a species tends to feel good; if it didn’t – for example, if sex wasn’t sexy – then the species would quickly die out. Consequently, that group-forming has been so beneficial to humanity for so long is a good explanation for why it feels so good. When we make plans to go out with our friends, we aren’t consciously trying to avoid being the lone target of a hungry tiger. In fact, we often aren’t thinking about safety at all; we’re simply feeling that we want the company of friends. But this is because our genes have programmed us to dislike feeling alone – no one who has ever said “I feel alone” said it with a smile – and to compel us to link up with other people who are similar.
One problem with our hyper-social affinities, I’ve found, is that it’s hard to be truly genuine within any given group. Don’t talk about politics or religion in mixed company, they say – even though feelings about politics and religion are so fundamentally important to who many people are. The larger the group, the shallower, in general, the bond is going to be. And the more eagerly one seeks to be accepted in a group, the more homogenized to the group’s dynamic she needs to be (or at least appear), subjugating her own thoughts and feelings to those of the group consensus. Being proudly individualistic is the antithesis to conformity, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to build a social network by fitting in.
What this means is that people – highly social creatures who love to network, group, and just plain old fit in – are willing to assume all kinds of broad identities that only approximate who they really are or, in some cases, are absolutely false. Why else would a gay man remain in the closet? Why else would a nonbeliever go to church? It also means that people assume different identities depending on the group setting.
Group dynamics necessarily cause inauthenticity because we constantly need to be aware of the ways in which we do and don’t fit in and to censor ourselves accordingly. In a given group, is it safe to be open about being a Republican? Being pro-choice? Being a Katy Perry fan? Being Muslim? Being bisexual? Being skeptical of global warming? Being in an open marriage? Every person is part of some social network from which she’d be ostracized for being completely genuine.
I’m not saying people should wear their feelings on their sleeves. Still, the fact that they don’t means that it’s all too easy to make inaccurate assumptions and generalizations about the people around us. I think if a million Americans were anonymously polled – and honest answers somehow guaranteed – we would find that people’s feelings about religion, politics, sex, and lifestyle don’t neatly fall into any of the available categories. And as soon as people realized that we all have massively different desires, dreams, interests, sexual fetishes – as soon as people realized there’s no such thing as normal – they’ll be less afraid to expose their true selves. Understanding causes acceptance causes authenticity causes love. Jenny Block is right. It’s time to be open.
Update on June 12, 2013: Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability hits the nail on the head. Self-actualization requires human connection; connection requires being authentic with others; and being authentic requires vulnerability. Joy and happiness require the courage to be honest and loving to oneself and others.