The first time I ever heard the word “solipsist,” it was in a young-adult novel I was reading when I was 9 or 10. Because this was a young-adult novel, the word was probably defined in the same sentence. I can’t seem to remember what the book was, or what my response to the concept of solipsism might have been. But I can only imagine that I was honestly pretty attracted to the belief that your own mind was the only one that was real, even if I was imminently aware that couldn’t be true.
When I was a kid, I had the deadly combination of little self-awareness, few inhibitions and even fewer social skills. I was always too loud or boisterous to be beloved by teachers, and too strange to be popular among my peers. Naturally, I read a lot of books. Most of the people I felt I really knew weren’t real as such — only characters in realistic books about preteens. For instance, I probably didn’t know what Yale was until I read “Gossip Girl” and despite the unrealistic plotlines, I identified with Blair Waldorf’s emotional plight. I’d like to think that I at least learned empathy through all of the reading, more that I would have had I passed time reading about say, unicorns.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I spent a little too much time watching interpersonal situations from the outside. Eventually I made some friends, and experienced social interactions, but it was hard for me to shake the feeling that I was invisible. Being a good student certainly had something to do with it. All of my friends were living their real lives, but I was just biding my time until I got out and went far, far away.
If reading fiction assured me that other people did have ontological realness, it forgot to leave me grounded in my own. It’s the very worst sort of solipsism: Everyone else is real but me. I go through the world understanding everyone else’s actions and their consequences, but am always much hazier about the effects of what I do. I make fun of earnest oversharers, yet I’m super-willing to divulge intense personal information on a lark (case in point, this WEEKEND column). I mock people who flirt with purpose, yet I embody my sexual attraction outwardly and aggressively. I give advice all of the time and never ever ever practice what I preach. It’s not that I think the rules don’t apply to me, I just genuinely feel like no one can see me break them.
The best example of this always happens in parties. I’ll be in a room with loud music, where everyone is dancing. Despite the noise, everyone is talking. I know that everyone is talking, because I am eavesdropping on the conversations and can hear them clearly. Yet, without fail, I will always lean into a friend and say something snarky about someone who is probably within earshot. Who knows how many people hate me for doing this on the constant? But I just can’t stop. I know that I can hear every word said around me, but for some reason I think that my mere existence just bends every law of physics.
Even though I’ve spent most of my life aware that “solipsism” is something to be avoided, I haven’t spent quite enough time actually avoiding it. The “Gossip Girl” books might have motivated me to come to Yale, but if I still run afoul of social graces like I’m Serena van der Woodsen, I probably missed the point. It’s all well and good to understand how people work, but if you can’t act like a person yourself, what have you really learned?