On being ... a conformist?

By Ingrid Sapona

Things are not always as they seem. That’s a maxim I often remind myself of when I’m trying to make sense of others’ behaviour or actions. I’ve never questioned whether things are what they seem when trying to make sense of my own behaviour, however, because I figure I know what’s real when it comes to me.

I have a very small mailbox and I get lots of mail. I often have to yank it out, sometimes even needing two hands to pull it. When that’s the case, I usually leave the mailbox key (which is attached to my key chain) in the lock as I struggle with the mail. One day last fall I was so preoccupied with the struggle that I didn’t realize I had left my keys in the mailbox lock until I got up to my apartment and wanted to open the door.

About a month later, I went downtown one morning for a few meetings. As I put on my coat after my first meeting, I checked my pocket for my keys. I panicked when they weren’t there. I looked through my purse and briefcase but they weren’t there either. I couldn’t have dropped them, I reasoned, because I’d have heard them.

After mentally retracing my steps, I remembered I had stopped to get my mail that morning and I had struggled to get it out. That’s when I realized I probably left them hanging in the mailbox lock again. This time, however, the incident was cause for alarm because at least two hours had passed and the mailboxes are labeled by apartment number. Anyone finding the keys could easily have helped themselves to whatever they wanted from my apartment.

I phoned the superintendent immediately. Thankfully, she found them. Aside from the obvious reasons for concern about someone getting into the apartment, that second incident raised deeper concerns about whether it was a sign of an emerging forgetfulness.

In November I lost a pair of gloves. When I discovered they weren’t in my jacket pockets, I tried to figure out the last time I had them. I was pretty sure I’d worn them when I ran errands the Saturday before. I called or went back to each place I’d been, in hopes they’d been turned in. No such luck.

They weren’t particularly valuable gloves, but they matched the jacket quite well. Clearly, I needed to accept that they were gone. I decided the “lesson” in this was about letting go of things. But, deep down, I worried about whether the loss of the gloves was yet another sign of increased forgetfulness.

At that point, I temporarily switched to wearing another coat. As soon as I found new gloves, however, I happily went back to wearing the jacket. It’s a warm fleece one from my sail club.

A few days later I was wearing the jacket while driving. As I had my hands on the steering wheel, out of the corner of my eye I noticed the club logo on the left sleeve. I didn’t remember ever seeing it there. In fact, I could have sworn the logo was on the front lapel. But, there it as on the left sleeve.

Another day, while I was talking to a friend, I noticed that the drawstring at the bottom of the jacket was pulled tight. That seemed odd because I never liked it drawn in because the toggle on it sometimes bruises my thigh. I was so distracted by the taut drawstring that I was unable to concentrate on the conversation. All I could think of was, “oh my God, I must be fidgeting with the drawstring and I don’t even realize it!”

On their own these incidents were inconsequential. But, taken together, the evidence was mounting that – at a minimum – I’m not particularly present to the moment or, worse, that I’m becoming oblivious to things. (How could I have never noticed the logo on the sleeve? I’m one of the most observant people I know!)

A couple weeks after that, as I was leaving an event at the sail club, I was putting on my jacket when a member asked me if it was mine. Figuring he was teasing me, I assured him it was. He then went on, “I’ve got one just like it and at a club party a few Saturdays ago, someone took mine.” I was at that party. Then he added, “when I put on my jacket that night I discovered gloves in the pockets.” You guessed it – I had taken his by mistake and he had mine – along with my gloves.

I was tremendously relieved when I got my jacket and I saw that the logo was on the lapel, the drawstring at the bottom was wonderfully loose, and my gloves were in the pockets where they belong. In other words, physical proof I’m not losing it.

On the way home that day I started thinking about how I had come to convince myself that these incidents might mean I’m losing it. I had taken reality – leaving my keys in the mailbox, having gloves go missing, seeing a logo where I’d never seen one before, etc. – and, since I couldn’t conceive of any alternative explanations, I came to a conclusion (that I’m losing it) that conformed to “reality” (or so I thought).

This realization made me wonder how many times I’ve taken “facts” and misinterpreted them, all the while thinking my conclusion incontrovertibly conformed to “reality”. Plenty of times, I suspect. So many, in fact, maybe I’ve coined a new meaning for the term: conformist! Quite a thought… Guess I should be reminding myself a bit more of that maxim – things aren’t always as they seem.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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