Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0971 - Being Selfish

"You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." - Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

...or maybe both.

It's one of life's ironies that, difficult as it is to follow the maxim "Know thyself", it is both more difficult and far easier for other people to know you.

Why easier?

If you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, you will have understood the concept of rapid cognition, the idea that one can come to an accurate impression of another person or object in the blink of an eye. With a few exceptions, it's safe to say that these fleeting impressions are not only accurate, but will last for a very, very long time.

This week, my wife and I met with a social worker at the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre to discuss counselling needs for me and my family in the wake of the diagnosis of metastatic colorectal cancer (MCRC). To put it quite bluntly, I was concerned about the extent to which I should become "selfish" about my own needs and the needs of my wife and two sons. Clearly, there was a personal sense of guilt surfacing as I struggled to say "No" to some people.

The social worker listened very carefully and summed up her impressions this way: "I've known you for less than 20 minutes, and you are not a selfish person. That much is very obvious to me."

Now, either I pulled one over on her, or the Blink phenomenon was at work.

This morning, as my wife and I mused over cafe late and cafe mocha at Starbucks, we reflected on our recent experiences. Later, as we walked to the car, I asked her, "We've known each other for 37 years now. Do you know me?"

"Better than anyone else in the world," was her response.

And yet our mutual attraction - which has lasted all these years - began in the blink of an eye, confirmed by the most fleeting of initial conversations. Those impressions were accurate and lasting.

So why is it more difficult for other people to know us?

For other people, there may not be the luxury of a clear and clean first impression. Alternately, there may not be the opportunity for long-term exposure and in-depth conversations and mutual experiences to confirm or deny the "measure of the man". But such individuals will still hold to preconceptions, presumptions, and expectations that make a reappraisal virtually impossible. In other words, what they see is not what is really there.

This happens with family. It happens with childhood friends. But it rarely happens with lifelong friends or with individuals with whom you have consistent, important relationships. As Gladwell will admit, sometimes the Blink experience is, simply put, incorrect and requires reappraisal. In those cases where first impressions are incorrect, what is needed is long-term interaction and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions.

So, as I approach another round of surgeries and chemotherapy, and as I deal with my sense of guilt about becoming more self-centred and preoccupied with my own needs and those of my family, I need to remember this. Both those who know me well and those open to the Blink experience confirm that I am not intrinsically selfish, but that I need to become more selfish if even for a few months. Or however long it takes.

The roller coaster ride that is cancer is just as much about issues like this as it is about medical treatment.

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