Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Neurosis #9

So here I am. We’re somewhere over a dark patch in the middle of the country and I’m in the window seat in the last row in the plane. The guy in front of me’s leaning all the way back, but I’m in the last row so my seat doesn’t go back, and I have to lift my legs up to stretch out a muscle that was sitting funny while I was asleep. So here I sit, scrunched up in the the last row of the plane, my thighs hugged against my chest, my knees digging into the seat in front of me, my back curved funny from being unable to recline. But that’s not the problem.

No, the problem is that I am terribly, almost unbearably, thirsty. My mouth has been dry for hours, we’re long past that. Now I’m so thirsty that the color has drained from my face, because there simply is no fluid left to keep it there. I am so thirsty that it’s beginning to feel like there’s no water around to hydrate my brain so my neocortex is getting and shrivelling up. It’s an odd feeling, your brain shriveling up. It makes it hard to think. But I guess that’s not really the problem either.

The problem, the real problem I suppose, is that I can’t ask for anything to drink. I am perfectly justified — I was asleep during the drink service, I am quite terribly thirsty, my flight is unusually uncomfortable to begin with — yet I cannot bring myself to do it. As the flight attendants walk briskly by, I fail to catch their eyes. And the a man sitting in the seat next to me on the aisle has headphones on, so I can’t exactly interrupt him. I could ring my flight attendant call button, but I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to do that. I’m so close to the flight attendants anyway.

If I rang the call button, I tell myself, I wouldn’t ask for a Sprite. I’d just ask for water. Asking for a Sprite, it’d seem like I was interrupting them just so I could get my soda fix. Like I was some sort of petulant child who had to have his soda and was going to throw a temper tantrum if they didn’t get it. Like a troublemaker, the kind of person they look down on. But water? Water they’d understand: it was a genuine medical request, a normal, physical human need. Something totally worth taking the extraordinary step of pressing the flight attendant call button.

But I can’t bring myself to do it. It seems like such an imposition.

This, I suppose, is the actual problem: I feel my existence is an imposition on the planet. Not a huge one, perhaps, not a huge one at all, but an imposition nonetheless. When I go to a library and I see the librarian at her desk reading, I’m afraid to interrupt her, even though she sits there specifically so that she may be interrupted, even though being interrupted by for reasons like this by people like me is her very job. At the fast food restaurant, I feel embarrassed taking time to pick through my pocket for appropriate change, so I always give them whole bills, then feel embarrassed when they have to take the time to count me out change. When someone asks me what high school I’m going to, I feel awkward explaining to them that I’ve gone to high school and to college and then started a company and sold it, so I just stutter a bit and then tell them that my high school is outside of Chicago.

I realize this is neurotic. Maybe not the high school thing, maybe that’s just politeness, but certainly the thing right now, the brain shriveling with the knees digging and yet still the fear of asking for some water. “This is neurotic, Aaron,” I say to myself. “You are being neurotic. It is not normal to be this shy. And geez, certainly you of all people have little justification for being so undemanding.”

I am a good person, I mean. I work hard, I happily pay my taxes, I think of ways to make the world a better place, I always look the woman behind the counter in the eye and say “thank you, thank you,” as if I really mean it, as if I really do appreciate the effort it took for her punch my order into her cash register and withdraw the right amount of change. And I do! So I deserve this, I deserve my glass of water, my can of soda. I am not like one of those people who goes around robbing banks and mugging old ladies and then stands in front of me in the supermarket line, throwing a tantrum about how dare the clerk not accept my credit card. No, I am perfectly justified in asking for a glass of water. I know all this, and yet, somehow, I still feel like an imposition.

Normally, it’s not so bad feeling this way. Normally, I just sit in my quiet little room and do the small things that bring me pleasures. I read my books, I answer email, I write a little bit. I’m not such a nuisance to the world, and the kick I get out of living can, I suppose, justify the impositions I make on it. But when life isn’t so fun, well, then I start to wonder. What’s the point of going on if it’s just trouble for us both?

My friends will miss me, I am told. And I guess it’s somewhat better around friends. For some reason asking them for things doesn’t seem quite so bad. Perhaps we’ve established some rapport, perhaps I feel I’ve given them enough to justify my small requests, perhaps I feel like my friends are special people who think along the same lines I do and thus understand my needs. (Inner critic: “Yeah, only a fellow genius would understand your special need for water. Jesus, what a dweeb.”) But even so, I feel reticent. Even among my closest friends, I still feel like something of an imposition, and the slightest shock, the slightest hint that I’m correct, sends me scurrying back into my hole.

I know, I know, I’m wrong, I’m wrong to feel this way. My friends love me. They remark, spontaneously, about how nice it is to have me around. They invite me over to their houses to hang out. Indeed, at this very moment, two of my very favorite people to hang out with are actually fighting — fighting! — over the supposed privilege of having me live with them. “I just want to point out,” one says, “that I have never tickled you.” “I just want to point out,” replies the other, “that I have never gotten you to attach clothespins to your face.”

Clearly, rationally, I am in the wrong. These people like me. (Inner cynic: “If only to have someone around to tickle and pinch.”) No, no, they genuinely like me. But the idea that people might actually want to be around me takes an amazing amount of getting used to. Last night, for the first time, I invited some people over to my apartment. I’ve never done this before. But, to my amazement, they all came. They even brought their friends. I ran out of chairs. The idea that a group of people would want to come over to see me was kind of stunning. Someone even brought wine.

OK, so perhaps there is a small group of people who, whether through quirks of genetics or some childhood trauma, appear, as best as I can tell, to actively enjoy my company. (Inner elitist: “Or just need excuses to drink wine?”) But this does not excuse my impositions on the store clerk, the librarian, the man inquiring after my high school who I downright lied to — lied to! — just to avoid pointing out the error of his preconceptions, the bus driver who I had to distract with my inability to use the new stored-value payment machines, or the waiter at that restaurant I went to the other day who, I later realized to my endless mortification, I forgot to properly tip. (Waiter, if you’re out there, please send me your address so I can mail you your tip! I’m so sorry!) These people did not request the dubious pleasure of my company. I have no justification for bothering them with my requests.

Oh, but you know, I really want some water…

You should follow me on twitter here.

February 7, 2007


I humbly suggest that next, you impose on a therapist.

posted by Ben Donley on February 7, 2007 #

Hi Aaron,

I hope this is a “nap time” or “low blood-sugar level” kind of a post, rather than feelings you are having all the time. Here’s my angle on it. I’m sorry if this advice doesn’t seem to attack your actual problem but hopefully it will be useful.

I think a lot of people feel like this at least some of the time. (Morrissey made a career out of it, even.) My advice, for what it’s worth, is that you put your big intellect to work on the problem. I’m sure if you treat it as a challenge of that sort you can find some angle of attack that will help you with the problem.

Strangely, the best piece of advice about getting the courage to do things that I ever heard was in the movie Three Kings.

Archie Gates: You’re scared, right? Conrad Vig: Maybe. Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it. Conrad Vig: That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around. Archie Gates: I know. That’s the way it works.

Once you accept that, you can do a scary thing knowing that it will give you the courage to do that same thing and other things like it in the future.

posted by Thomas David Baker on February 7, 2007 #

Overcoming shyness, like everything else, takes practice.

posted by Jamie McCarthy on February 7, 2007 #

This made me smile, although it probably shouldn’t. It’s nice to know someone feels the same way as I do. I also make up white unnecessary lies just to avoid attention from other people. And I also feel awkward around even close friends (not to mention strangers), even though I know they like me. It’s just a thing I’m born with I guess. Other people just don’t understand what the problem is - I’m socially capable and all - it just really makes me anxious being around people sometimes. I guess therapy might help, but I’ve never really looked into it.

On the other hand, I remember it was really nervewrecking when I was around your age (I’m 29 now). It gets a bit better with age, so stick with it though.

Chin up and thanks for a nice read.

posted by Matt on February 7, 2007 #

Some of the behavior you describe, especially the unwillingness to “bother” others, sounds like introversion.

There’s plenty to read about introversion online. I suggest the article “Caring for Your Introvert”.

Also, the book The Introvert Advantage, although a bit pop-psy, is very informative.

(introversion != shyness)

posted by Kris on February 7, 2007 #

This, I suppose, is the actual problem: I feel my existence is an imposition on the planet.

I felt like that for a long time. Then one day I looked at what I’d done in my life to that point and decided that it was enough, that I had contributed enough to the world to pay back what I’d cost it. And after that I didn’t worry about it so much.

posted by Scott Reynen on February 7, 2007 #

I suffered from #9 a lot when I was younger and still do somewhat. As others have said though, time helps.

If you’re flying lots, do yourself a favor and get a mileage card (apply online to avoid imposing on a real person!). They don’t cost anything and just by virtue of having one you’ll get seats with more leg room (United calls them “Economy Plus” seats - I’m assuming all airlines have something similar but YMMV).

posted by William Bland on February 7, 2007 #

It’s cool. You don’t have to justify your existence. As the Neil Gaiman character said: You get what everyone gets; you get a lifetime. Part of why the people who like being around you like that (me, included), is that indefinable thing called your uniqueness. Statistical thinking to the contrary, there really is only one you right here, right now. Inspire yourself as you inspire others. As someone said - I think it was you - dare to think big! ;-)

posted by Reg Aubry on February 7, 2007 #

Ben Donely

Well, it’s probably good that he is disclosing - and doing kind of elementary introspection lit(erature) thing. I believe that’s what tend to be missing from regular/main stream Anglo-Saxon culture. (calling it exhibitionist and so on but alas in past 50 years or so counseling industry took hold of Americans.)

I agree TD Baker in some way, that if Asw starts to look into how our brains work and starts reading that field, he’d find many research dealing with or dealing with something ‘close’ to what he suffers (and/or enjoys).

posted by some parts of brain is just automatic on February 7, 2007 #

It’s great for us spectators that he’s disclosing, SPOBISJA, as he discloses so nicely, but he’s also wrong about a few big things in such a way that may require someone well trained to interrupt or assist in his introspection. Repeatedly.

Clearly Aaron is as smart as people come, but everyone takes time off from being smart, or has things they aren’t smart about.

For example, if Aaron were to check out, that would be the biggest imposition he could possibly make on the people that he cares most about. It would be the largest possible amount of harm to the most people that anyone like Aaron could ever do. Either he can’t figure that out because he’s not equipped for it, or he knows that and there’s some reason he leans towards that imposition anyway.

Both of those are problems that can’t always be solved by brain power + introspection. Or casual friendly insight.

Aaron, I imagine, hopefully, that you’re happily imposing on a therapist. If you aren’t, please start.

posted by Ben Donley on February 7, 2007 #

It’s interesting how many people have this problem. It’s also interesting how many people see things like being asked for a minor favor as impositions. The latter is the more serious problem, really.

Maybe by ‘imposing’ on people to do reasonable things, and by carrying out the ‘imposition’ reasonably nicely, one can train stingy asses to be kinder, more generous souls!

posted by italo on February 8, 2007 #

Okay, I get your points. > Ben Donely

I didn’t know - that your concerns were coming from with, say, depth. (Because I’ve only seen one-liners.)

I believe his parents, and family are there first, they have net connections and reading - every day - every single post by him, I bet, and I don’t believe Y combinator and Reddit people, and many more people who knows him and around him, just don’t care about him anymore. I just think those people who knows him close and well are doing the assessment rightly and letting him going on his own ways.


posted by SPOBISJAO on February 8, 2007 #

Yes, SPOBISJAO, I am sure that his friends and family are there first. That’s why my original answer was flip. Some weirdo that Aaron met on the bus isn’t going to be the most knowledgeable or helpful person for him.

Hopefully his friends and family are all up on their game.

posted by Ben Donley on February 8, 2007 #

Aaron, you need a “Just Shy” shirt from xkcd. ;)

posted by Jacob Rus on February 11, 2007 #

To me, the really interesting angle on this is that people like to be asked for help, for favors, to do things for each other. It’s how we feel useful. When you forgo imposing, you’re also declining to offer that person the chance to be involved in the world more, via you. Of course, this varies with the favor and all, but if it’s something that you feel is part of who you are, and you’re not already being asked for it too often, then the chance to give, to benefit another person, is a part of what makes life worth living. I like to be asked. I like to give.

But — you knew this, I bet. :)

posted by Sonia Lyris on February 15, 2007 #

I have such trouble imposing on others that I can’t bring myself to fill out expense reports at work. It takes an extreme focus of will for me to overcome my not wanting to ask for anything long enough to send one of these in. Like you, being reimbursed for work-incurred expenses is something to which I am certainly entitled. In fact, I ask for far less in terms of supplies, etc. than most other employees with my company, and I complain very little. I just - can hardly force myself to do it.

posted by Tess on August 30, 2010 #

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