There is an old LSAT problem I teach my students, about the paradoxical behavior of suburban birds who flee danger by flying smack into the sides of houses instead of hiding in nearby vegetation. The explanation for all the avian suicide is that the windows in the houses reflect surrounding foliage – so the birds think they are hiding – but that’s not why I like to teach the problem. Mostly, I like to teach it because the image of birds flying head-on into windows makes me giggle (call PETA if you want, but stupidity is funny in every species). Before I go down for schadenfreude, though, let me add that I also love this image as a metaphor; it is a moment to which I think we can all relate.
It is shocking, those moments when you realize that the space you occupy is significantly smaller than you thought it was, and it can happen to us mentally just as much as it can physically. While I have walked into my share of floor-to-ceiling mirrors (I know I am not the only one who wishes they would stop using these to decorate small restaurants and hotel lobbies), the times when I have slammed up against the invisible walls of my own mind have been far more jarring. These mental walls have been on my mind lately because around this time every year I revisit one of my earliest.
This past weekend, we celebrated my parents’ birthdays, one on Saturday then the other on Sunday. Not because I am a Joffrey Baratheon-style child of incestuous twins who refuse to share a party, but because my parents are almost exactly the same age. Nine hours separate their births – though since those nine hours straddle midnight they do have different birth dates. If you don’t think my mom makes the most out of the one calendar day when my dad is technically older than her, then you don’t know women very well. Or marriage.
Adult me knows that this birthday coincidence doesn’t happen very often, but it took many years for younger me to realize that my family’s unique situation had formed an invisible barrier around my perception of reality. Growing up, I assumed that every married or dating couple was the same age, and that I would obviously end up with Leonardo DiCaprio because his birthday is two days after mine (I was willing to overlook the different birth year). My November birthday theory went bust the first time I dated a fellow Scorpio and realized that, if this was the guy for me I should seriously consider being a lesbian, but the second wall is one I walked into many, many times (and still do from time to time). It doesn’t help that my brother chose to marry someone only five days older than he is – give a girl a break!
Those little things that in truth are simply the quirks of our particular circumstance so easily become our expectations for reality without us noticing. My brother and father are both left-handed, and so are the brother and father of my life-long best friend. When our families would eat together we always sat boy-girl-boy-girl, so all the men could cut their meat without anyone getting elbowed. We women were all righties, and boom: another invisible wall boxed me in. Handedness and gender were the same. To this day, I still have to stifle immediate envy when I meet a left-handed girl; I have to remind myself that it does not make her more exotic and tom-boyish than I could ever hope to be. Also, all right-handed boys are not automatically gay (if only it were that easy – high school and college would be far gentler on the hearts of so many young girls…).
Walking head-on into a personal bias always leaves me momentarily stunned, because it forces me to question my perception of the world. But I have run into enough now that I know they are there, and I am always on the lookout for the next one. Some of these invisible mental walls are relatively harmless, like my assumption (until recently) that everyone is as aware of their own heartbeat as I am, but others can be more dangerous – like the idea that everyone has two parents who read to them and love them, or that everyone is born with the tools to learn, or feed themselves, or deal with adversity. Coming to Los Angeles ran me straight into my assumption that people generally mean what they say (that one really hurt), and my belief in the importance of tangible markers for success.
We are the products of our assumptions, and our assumptions reflect our history, which is part of why I love teaching logic so much. The more we start to recognize the many assumptions that block our view, the more we can see those invisible walls and, instead of running into them, start to peek around them. We are Minotaurs, imprisoned in mental mazes of our own making, slowing working our way out from the center. With each new wall we crash into, we get a little closer to escaping the sheltered spaces we have built for ourselves to see the real world outside.
Fortunately for me, I actually am half bull – since I am the child of two Taurus parents. I like to think it gives me a fighting chance. Happy Birthdays, Mom and Dad; thanks for giving me the tools to navigate this labyrinth of life.