Thoughts on the Social Contract

Here’s the down-and-dirty version of the Social Contract: hey, let’s have a civilization in which we respect one another so that we don’t just kill each other for the other one’s stuff. Cool? Cool.

I’m not exactly breaking new ground here when I say that as a culture, we admire people who break the social contract in certain ways. Our sitcom characters say things most of us would never say in real life to our co-workers, let alone to our friends. We’re generally nice to one another, or at least if we’re mean we’re usually mean in a fun way (except of course to those people that we feel “deserve it” somehow). We like characters like House and Sherlock Holmes who don’t really feel bound to be polite. We even admire the villains who fight against the banality of the social contract. All of Batman’s enemies in Christopher Nolan’s version do that, and we can’t get enough of them.

When people do improv, we’re playing at breaking the social contract, too. We’re living in the moment and saying things that people claim they would never think of, but really they probably would if they were in the moment like we are. When they’re sitting in their seats having a soda and popcorn and watching us, they aren’t trying to be in the moment, so it feels like they can’t think of it. Anyway, my point is that we aren’t trying to be nice and polite. As performers, we seek out conflict (not just arguments) so that we can heighten tensions and have results that good, nice, normal people wouldn’t do. Also, we sometimes play characters so bizarre that the audience is thinking, “That person is voluntarily pretending to be a robot Shakespeare in a dress. NOT NORMAL AND THEREFORE FUNNY.” (Note: it may not be inherently funny, but a surprising number of things that are not funny per se become funny with context.)

What got me thinking about it today is that I often feel that “in real life,” I’m not myself very often because I’m trying so hard to fulfill lots of tiny little clauses of the social contract. I’ve learned, through negative feedback, that I talk too much and nobody appreciates that. I’ve learned that I dwell on topics others don’t like to think about (I literally had to learn not to talk about autopsies during dinner), even if people seem interested; others are not only not interested, but are actively feeling ill.

Part of the reason I go by Strange (when I can, and when people will cooperate) is because, as I’ve mentioned before (, it makes me more honest.

But I still have to balance on that fine line where I can be honest without being careless.

I think where I’m running into hiccups is that I don’t always know where the contract is supposed to be. I know that realistically, everyone has different areas that they find acceptable and unacceptable. I have opinions on things that are “hot button” topics, and since this is an open blog, some of it would create some incredibly angry responses. (For example, my opinions on guns, abortion, or Israeli-American relations.) I also find humor in things that some people just don’t want to hear about (I know a couple incredibly awful, distasteful jokes that I can only tell at certain parties, and even then typically very quietly in the corner).

There’s this saying that you’re supposed to be yourself because — if I remember it correctly — “those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.” But I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve got things to say that would be completely honest and open, and probably interesting to many, but that would be sharing secrets that aren’t just mine to share. I need to honor those I love by keeping those things to myself. I don’t think it makes me less honest, exactly, but it certainly prevents me from having the conversations that I’d like to have (at times).

I can’t even write some of the jokes, or the random thoughts I have.

I think many readers would actually respond positively to it if I broke these rules for myself. If I posted an entry to this blog that had to do with funny thoughts I had about urinals, lots of you would be laughing, and I like that. But, you guys, lots of my family reads this blog, and I’m not sure most of them want me making jokes about genitalia. Some of them are even flinching that I just wrote the word genitalia, which was about the most clinical way I could think of to even mention the subject.

I don’t want to start a “hidden” blog for the “real” stuff, because I think it would make me start being less open and honest on THIS blog, and I wouldn’t keep up with it.

There’s no clearly drawn line. There’s no system that I can refer to that tells me, “This is okay to talk about, but this is not.” There’s no way that I can reasonably determine things like, “This will give you x points of happiness to post, and it will only annoy your wife x/3 points, which will indirectly cost you x/2 points of the earned happiness, so the net effect for the family is still x/6 positive points of happiness — go for it!” (And I would love a chart like that. It would make it so easy to determine whether or not to post things.)

It’s not that I feel like I need permission to “be myself.” It’s that I struggle with figuring out how to be myself as much as I can without causing discomfort to those I love.

It’s a million tiny sacrifices over a lifetime. I think — I think — that the trick is learning which sacrifices, and which pattern of sacrifices, are the right ones to make to secure current peace and ongoing contentment. I don’t trust people who don’t make sacrifices for loved ones and expect their families to just adapt.

I want to be myself… but the myself that I want to be is one who respects the feelings of the people he loves.

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One Response to Thoughts on the Social Contract

  1. Catherine Charlton Meeker says:

    I love your last sentence.

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