the pink elephant in the room

“When I came out, my mom cried for a month, but my dad was really sweet. All he said was, ‘The only thing I’m sad about is that you’ll never get to experience the joy of having children, the joy I feel having you.’”

When I told my boyfriend what my gay boss said about his coming out experience, he (the boyfriend) immediately reacted with “Wow I thought the dad was going to have a much harder time with it than the mom.” I paused for a second and thought, "What made him think that?"

I’ve come to realize that most of our gut reactions to new things are informed by our worldview. The vague word, defined by to mean “A particular philosophy of life or conception of the world,” was better understood to me as something I learned in 9th Grade Bible class (Yes, that’s a thing). “If your pencil is missing,” my teacher boomed, “Do you automatically assume someone stole it, or that you misplaced it?”

I guess what he was trying to say is that the cumulative influence of our environment, our upbringing, and our experiences determine how we act in future scenarios. In negative terms, they form our biases. But in positive terms, they help prepare us for future experiences to better know how to respond. Because we’ve learned that biases can turn into prejudice and in turn be limiting and sometimes harmful to others, we learn to curb our instincts a little when we can. Which is why our gut reactions, our subconscious fight or flight reply to things we’re less equipped to handle is what fascinates me, because that’s when our uninhibited, unfiltered biases come out.

We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are
— Anais Nin

Tolstoy always inserted these moments of self-censorship or lackthereof into his characters’ private monologues. We first read what they think, often an error of judgment, before the character self-corrects the thought. Tolstoy was always acutely aware that our minds are constantly creating erroneous, even impossible thoughts and to edit or filter them takes a conscious effort. To take an example from Maria Konnikova’s book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, she tells the reader to think of a pink elephant. We all know that pink elephants don’t exist, and yet our minds immediately create the mental picture before we are able to suppress it. But I digress.

The point is that, try as we might to be politically correct, or verbally conscientious, we can’t always stop how we feel about the situation. I think there’s no better example now than the topic of Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender ex-Olympian who sent the media into a frenzy. I myself have witnessed a range of reactions, from utter indifference and shy discomfort to fearful acceptance and eager support. But whatever your opinion is on the subject, your gut reaction to her in a satin bustier on the cover of Vanity Fair is a sure sign of your worldview.

We like to dismiss those from the older generations for being “narrow-minded,” myself included, but it’s simply that their worldview was drastically different. Gays who once faced imprisonment and torture just a mere few generations ago for their sexual orientation are now (mostly) openly accepted and valued as equals, something that many in my generation take for granted. It makes me wonder what are some things I view as “impossible” or illegal that might soon become the norm when my grandchildren inherit the world.

When I suggested this to my boyfriend, he responded with a straight face, “Public nudity.” 

I burst out laughing and elbowed him to be serious, but I realized I just reacted the way my grandparents would have if you told them Caitlyn Jenner would grace the cover of a magazine.