I was taken, recently, with the premise of the movie, Surrogates. I liked the premise so much that I tried really hard to like the movie. I failed, but I still like the premise so I am going to make use of it today. Surrogates is set in some unspecified future in which ordinary people spend their days in “stim chairs” and are represented in public by automatons who look just the way each of them would like to look. [footnote 1: “Including the fat and balding old man who chooses to inhabit a surrogate that looks like an incredibly sexy young woman.”] In this picture she is appearing in her surrogate; he is not.
You can see why that appealed to me. These people weren’t prisoners…exactly. They refused to appear in public as the people they actually were—inhabiting the bodies they actually had—and chose, instead to live all day every day sitting in a chair wired to connect them to their surrogates. This isn’t like not going to the dance because you “don’t have anything to wear.” This isn’t like skipping your high school reunion because you still have a lousy job and a disreputable car. This is a lot worse.
I let my condemnation of “those people” run free as I watched the movie, in part because I don’t make those particular mistakes. But there is the question of how to think clearly about the kind of mistakes I do make—the Dale kind of mistakes. I have an answer I’d like to offer, but first I want to prepare that answer with plausible starting points.
Here is the first such. A sociology text I read long ago attempted to define what the word institution means to sociologists. The author imagined a scene in a restaurant in which all the normal customers were sitting and eating. One man was standing at the window turning slowly left and right looking, apparently, for something. A young woman new to the restaurant thinks maybe she should call the manager and get that guy out of here, but one of the regulars stops her. “It’s OK,” he says, “he always does that.” When “always does that” makes everyone relax and go on with their business, “institutional status” has been achieved.
Here is the second. Imagine that I am a guy who just can’t hold his liquor. I drink a little bit and I get “funny.” [footnote 2: ‘thinking you are funny would be one of the great consolations of being drunk if only everyone else got drunk at the same time and alto thought you were funny. Alas, it is not always so.”] And then I drink a little more and I get sociable and I plan parties for us all to attend next week. Eyes roll. No date books are utilized. Finally I get mean and start to say really nasty things to these people who are my friends. “It’s OK,” says one of my longtime friends to a new acquaintance, “He always gets like this after the first six-pack. He doesn’t mean any of it.”
You see the similarity, of course. You feel the same way I would, I suppose, that if I can’t handle alcohol any better than that, maybe I should stay away from it. Good idea. Let’s move on.
Third starting point. Let’s say the difficulty isn’t alcohol. It’s a stroke and the effect of the stroke, for our consideration, is that I can’t feel the side of my mouth, which means I can’t feel the saliva that pools there. And I don’t know when I start to drool. This a failure of presentability. It’s serious. It is one of the things “one simply does not do” and now I can’t help it and don’t know when I’m doing it.
There is the Surrogates strategy, of course. I am so embarrassed about being the guy in the group who drools that I just don’t become a part of the group. Understandable, certainly, but not very satisfactory. And if I have been in a group where one or more of the members drools, then I know how I felt about it and about them. Naturally, I imagine that people are feeling that way toward me. The strong side of me doesn’t want to inflict that experience on the others; the weak part of me is just self-conscious and ashamed.
Fourth starting point. I was married for a long time to a wonderful woman who died very rapidly of cancer. In the short time between the diagnosis and the death, she experienced a bunch of really nasty treatments and felt really bad a lot of the time. And, of course, all her hair fell out. Marilyn wasn’t really the self-conscious type. She imagined that everyone either liked her or was looking around for a strategy that would enable them to like her. Here’s what that did for her.
She took her physical liabilities—the analog to the drooling man, above—as difficulties her friends were trying to overcome. There is a certain wariness people have when they sit down to a good conversation with a woman who is dying of cancer. You don’t know quite how to treat her. You don’t know whether she is self-conscious or frightened or angry. You just don’t know how to be.
Marilyn saw her job as finding a way to make them comfortable with her. She taught them how to be with her and rewarded them for continuing to try and for getting it right. She was a warm and generous woman and when she rewarded you, you knew you had been rewarded. No one avoided her. People continued to introduce her to their friends and to be introduced to her friends, just as they always had. In the meantime, her husband (me) stood there dumbfounded. I had not only never seen a performance like that; I had never imagined that there could be one. The faint beginnings of the concept and the repeated concrete actions occurring at the same time, day after day. It was dazzling. On the other hand, it set the bar pretty high.
Having started now at four different places, let me arrive at a strategy I think even I might be able to use. I tell my friends that I am sorry to be the guy in the group who drools and doesn’t know when it is happening. I tell them that I value their friendship and would like to presume on their good will for a favor. Since they can see the early stages of drool and I can’t, they can just give me a signal—I picture any one of them putting an index finger up to the corner of his mouth—and I act to prevent the occurrence. That’s it, really.
But I see the power of this in the establishment of the institution. I’m like the guy in the restaurant about whom they say, “Don’t worry. He always does that.” This difficulty I have isn’t like remembering not to get drunk and abuse my friends; this is about having had a stoke and needing friends. If this works the way I am thinking it will, these friends are my team. They have my back. They know the many ways we care for each other and the little signal, the finger to the corner of the mouth, is just one of those ways of caring.
People who would like to be offended by it will face a wall of people who are not offended by it. They would be violating a norm that my friends learned how to honor and then to value. The new people would run very quickly into the wall of “this is how we do it here.”
We are a team. About me they say, “He is one of us.” To other people, they say, “Don’t worry about a thing. We’ve got this under control.”