Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Everyday Moments of Potential Disaster

Warning: This post contains a story about me going to the bathroom. If that's weird to you, read this instead.

If you really think about it, there are hundreds of moments every day in which something could go horribly wrong. By this logic, it kind of makes me happy because most of the time nothing that bad actually happens (knock on wood). However hard we might try, the human mind seems to be set up evolutionarily to protect itself from potential danger, and we are what we are because of that. We anticipate bad things that might happen, and we are cautiously aware of our surroundings. It comes in handy sometimes.

Where it gets weird is that the new dangers that we try to protect ourselves from are not actually dangerous in the way that getting eaten by a lion is dangerous. In the modern world, most people worry about things that don't actually put our physical condition in danger, but rather focus on things that might put our emotional condition in danger. Things like being seen by another man with your pants at your ankles. It's more difficult to explain why that is bad, compared to having to explain why getting gored by a rhino is bad. It's just bad in a socio-psychological kind of bad way. Not as simple.


I consider myself to be one who worries less than the average person, but today I had a moment of acute awareness of potential disaster. While on the toilet. I had sat down to TCOB in the one-toilet, one-room, no-stall lavatory on the basement floor of Goodbody Hall at Indiana University. As I was sitting there with my pants down, I looked at the door and realized that I had neglected to lock the door. There was a distance of about five feet from where I was s(h)itting and where the door was. With my pants still down, I stood up and lunged over to lock the door. This was the moment. My moment of acute awareness of potential disaster.

If during that one second somebody had tried to open the door, it would have been pretty embarrassing. But, I had carefully weighed the economics of embarrassment and felt that my very short period of risk of total disaster (being caught standing up with my pants down in the middle of the bathroom) outweighed the potential for the significantly-less disastrous (yet still completely undesirable) possibility that some one would open the door and see me sitting on the toilet.

I'll spare you the logistics of why I couldn't have pulled my pants up before going to lock the door, but I guess what I am trying to say is that I guess I am a little bit of a risk-taker. When it comes to these very short moments of potential embarrassment, I seem to not care most of the time. Pulling a bag of popcorn out of the trash at the movie theater, ejecting an irritating booger from my nose in public, adjusting an uncomfortable testicle from under my desk, checking a celebrity gossip blog during a class; all of these potentially embarrassing things can usually be done quickly and safely. I get away with it. All the time. (I'm pretty sure I have just jinxed myself.)

What is really interesting is how our minds almost subconsciously calculate the risks and benefits of potential embarrassment, in the same way that our minds once used the same facilities to assess the potential for danger. Real danger has been replaced by imagined, virtual, and social danger, and it still feels dangerous. That feeling that you get when you haven't read for class and then your teacher is looking out at everyone, trying to decide who to ask the next question, that is our evolved sense of danger, being applied to something that is culturally contrived. Pretty neat, huh?

In the same way that germs are everywhere and it will just gross you out or make you paranoid if you think about it too hard, the potential for cultural disaster is everywhere, but it's ok, because like most of the germs floating around, embarrassment cannot kill you. Plus, then you might have a good story to send in to Teen Magazine's Most Embarrassing Moments section. I'm pretty sure most of those are made up anyway.

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