‘Why my shoes are mad at me’ or ‘Can a person ever really get along with the number nine?’

J. Robinson (Nature 454 p.1054)

picture from: J. Robinson (Nature 454 p.1054)


In a recent issue of Nature is a fascinating article about a tug-of-war between male derived genes and female derived genes, which may play out in cognitive disorders like autism. Evo-devo is a relatively new science that explores not only how evolution plays out in terms of our DNA expressing genes, but how genes interact in embryonic development, under environmental conditions, and in warring it out with each other for supremacy. The Nature essay explores the implications of this kind of evo-devo on our mental life based on whether mom or pop’s genes happen to co-opt more than their fair share of influence. If the male genes gain too much authority, certain protein products associated with autism may be the result. If female genes gain too much persuasion the authors speculate that an opposite condition to autism may result. Holy cow that opposite sure sounded like me.

I’m always worried about what people think of me. Cripplingly so. I tend to be hyper-sensitive to the way people feel. Heck, the way everything feels.

I tend towards a bizarre kind of animism. For example in elementary school, numbers always had personality and while everyone else was adding them up, I was thinking about how they might feel being next to each other. For example, ornery 6 might be paired with easy-going 7 in 76. Affable 2 and prideful 9 might not mix well in 29 making it an ill-suited number. Jolly 13 pared with ever amicable 2 in 213 might just create a party. Numbers 1-20 all had distinct personalities and numbers greater than that just had the personality that of the individual numbers (not a combined personality, the numbers were just joined up in a loose confederation). Of course, this made math a social exercise and I spent way more time worrying about whether the numbers would get along than learning how to add them up. I was always in trouble in my early years.

This animism plays out in other ways as well.

When I stack books, I feel bad for the one on the bottom because if it feels like the poor volume must feel it doesn’t matter and will never be read.

Yesterday when I took my new running shoes off and put them next to my old ones that have not been used in days, I felt a sense of pride shining off of the news ones and a sense of injustice and disappointment emanating from the old ones. “How could you abandon us so?” they seemed to ask.

Because I am hypersensitive to the feelings of others (including inanimate things) it makes me very empathetic, but also rather dysfunctional sometimes because I will find group situations very stressful and anxiety producing. I’m especially sensitive to power structures and can feel the presence of those in power over me like a bright light in a dark room. It’s as if I live my life under a great eye. And just for clarity’s sake, let me give you an example of how loosely I mean ‘power structures’, because you probably don’t mean it like I do. I live in constant terror about what my cleaning lady here in Vienna is thinking. She comes every two weeks and although I’ve never met her, she haunts my consciousness like a demon. Whenever I make a mess, or spill something, or leave something out of place that I know she’ll straighten when she comes, her eye descends like Zeus’ and I’m forced to make amends and clean and straighten. I can never relax. She is always judging my actions. “Um,” she’ll think, “He really doesn’t fold towels very well does he.” Or “tsk, tsk, look at these shampoo bottles all misaligned.” Yes. Yes. I know this is crazy. That’s the weird part. I laugh at myself all the time (as does my wife), but I can’t help it. It’s odd determining who these ever-present watchers in my life will turn out to be. It almost seems a bit random. I can’t predict it. Friends and family never become watchers. Some people who have real power over me, I could care less about. But other people become God-like in their power to stare down at the heavens at me, like the cleaning lady. But once there, they become another eye in a stadium of people watching me that I can’t seem to shake. I live with a constant sense of judgement. And yes, this is stressful.

So this article in Nature struck a cord. It speculates that there is kind of an opposite condition to autism. And in me a sort of complement autism would explain a lot. I cannot focus on details at all. My friends point this out to me all the time and may be part of why I can’t spell (more on that in another post up-coming). (And not only can I not tell you what day of the week July, 29 2940 is, but I can’t give you today’s date: I might uncharitably be called a savant-idiot (and of course many people just take off the savant)).

So an reverse-autism expressing itself in me may make some sense (this Nature article is an essay, so the authors are not making an argument that there is strong scientific evidence for this condition, but rather putting forth an idea that needs further investigation). Rather than seeing the world with a mechanical click-clack of cold flat emotionless objects, I see the entire world as animated with feelings, from numbers to shoes. Rather than a focus on details, my world is united and holistic to the point where focusing on any details requires great attention. Which I don’t have.

I’ve learned from others how the world really works. I don’t believe or even pay attention to these bursts of feeling from the world. I’ve reined it in quite well. I think. I would not own them as real expressions of the universe and mostly I live as other people through a rational lens and decision that I ought not to pay attention to these things.

A friend once told me something that gives me comfort, that in an ancient society I would have been a shaman, because everything in the world can tell me how it feelss. (I would have taken off that extra ‘s’, but I know what it’s like be unwanted and expendable so I’ll leave it.).

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6 comments to ‘Why my shoes are mad at me’ or ‘Can a person ever really get along with the number nine?’

  • Cap

    When I was young I had to play with my Spider-Man action figures all equally because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

    I don’t think I feel such an extreme need to please all of my objects this way now, (Although it is still there, and I continually have to remind my self they aren’t real). It is strange that I (or any other person) would feel that way.

    I remember when I was about 12 or 13 I was having a hard time with school, or math, or something, but my Dad had told me about how I was like him and didn’t see things in great detail, and that if I was to understand anything I needed to know why I needed to know this. (Does that make sense)? I didn’t care why it was this way, or what made something to be a certain way. I just needed to know why it was being taught. I needed to know why I should even care. Details weren’t important.

    I also tend to think how something feels, more than what it looks like. How a tree feels when it moves in the wind more than what it looks like.

  • SteveP

    cap I think we are kindred spirits! Great poetry at the end of this!

  • Sue

    Oh gosh. This is so me. SO ME. I always thought it was synethesia, but animism sounds more apt.

    http://borrowedlight.blogspot.com/2007/11/random-random-random.html

    I wrote about my own peculiarities here, but I haven’t told the world about how sympathetic I feel toward my poor unused pair of black sandals, or how I’m so certain that the grocery bagger is judging me that I’ll make two trips to the grocery store to avoid putting Diet Coke and ice cream in the same cart.

    Well, now I have something to blog about tomorrow at least ;>

  • SteveP

    Hi Sue! Another kindred spirit! Maybe we should introduce your black sandals and my old running shoes?

  • jcasa2

    I have the hardest time putting a piece of fruit back after I’ve picked it up, in fear of leaving feeling unwanted. I’d like to say I’m getting better but I think my kids are used to eating the “Charlie Browns” of the produce department.

  • I have feelings toward objects too, but it doesn’t seem as intense as what you describe. I almost couldn’t bring myself to abandon my 20 year old car to the used car lot, for instance. I got in it and cried and hugged the seat back when I said goodbye.

    Maybe that is why I have a hard time throwing things away. My father was the same way. I feel that each scrap of the universe has some meaning and usefulness that perhaps everyone has yet to discover.

    I think it’s related to empathy, as you said. It may be that it’s a godlike trait, in fact, to see the worth of every fleeting configuration of particles in the universe. Otherwise, why would he love us so unaccountably?

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