If It Looks Like A Duck…

If It Looks Like A Duck…

Who am I?

That’s a question to which I struggle to find an answer that satisfies me. Oh, there are no shortage of answers: I’m Ben, I’m a husband, I’m a 40 year old, I’m a programmer, I’m an Aspie… But these are only labels. Some can conjure stereotypes: in the case of programmer that might well be of a pale-skinned, glasses-wearing, high-IQ social misfit with poor personal hygiene, no girl/boyfriend, the muscle tone of a blancmange and a diet of pizza, soda and Twinkies. As with most stereotypes there are elements that broadly fit and others that are way off. The imprecision nags at me like a label in the back of a shirt.

Tell me about yourself.

I won’t deny that I do describe myself as above — the labels, not the stereotype! But with limited time, space, or both, I can’t keep on supplying descriptive tags until I feel I’ve completed the picture. Where does that leave me? Well, people have to fill in the gaps from their own observations and that depends on how I appear to them.

I can tell you that I care very much for my wife but that obviously didn’t show to a group of doctors recently who were urgently treating her for an allergic reaction that caused her tongue and throat to swell. I think they were expecting me to appear agitated and fuss over her but I remained calm — fussing or panicking would not have helped either of us, so I sat there out of the way and let the doctors get on with treating her. That’s what I judged to be the most helpful course of action, and because I care I wanted to act in the way that I thought would benefit her the most. They asked my wife whether I cared about her because I appeared cold and unemotional.

But you don’t look <adjective>.

Some people set great store by their belief in their powers of observation: seeing is believing. And when they’re told something that is at odds with what their own eyes have seen they are inclined to disbelieve it. In this case of the doctors — maxilla-facial surgeons and registrars — even with a passing knowledge of autistic behavior they didn’t believe my wife when she told them I do care about her but I’m not expressive: I didn’t look like I cared. You just can’t win sometimes.

It quacks like a duck, therefore…

If I tell you that I’m 5’11” and 210 lbs, stockily built, physically strong and bearded you will have a particular image of me. You might expect certain traits that correspond to that image: stereotypical masculine traits such as:

  • self-confident
  • independent
  • hard
  • thick-skinned
  • aggressive

You’d be in for a surprise: I’m none of those. So I present as male which matches my biological sex but I don’t necessarily think or behave in the corresponding way. Told you I was weird! 😉

It’s a platypus?

Conan-Doyle wrote  in Sherlock Holmes “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. And the truth here will have to wait until I have eliminated the impossible. You see, I can’t accurately answer the question with which I opened this essay. I don’t know how to describe who I really am: I’m as reliant on labels as everybody else. To myself I am just me — I know what that means but the collection of thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical matter doesn’t have a name. Any words I or others use are an approximation, a simple sketch of the reality.

René Magritte in his famous painting La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) captured this perfectly. As the caption on the picture states, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe”. The realization for me of the literal truth of that statement was profound.

And finally…

I hope I’ve not left you disappointed that I didn’t answer my own question. Instead I wanted to explore what identity means and how my perspective cannot be translated to anybody else without losing fidelity. All anybody else will ever see is an imperfect reflection through my words and their eyes.

9 thoughts on “If It Looks Like A Duck…

  1. "Because I care I wanted to act in the way that I thought would benefit her the most. They asked my wife whether I cared about her because I appeared cold and unemotional."This made me tear up because it's so unfair. I'm glad your wife understood.Thoughts on identity will have to wait until I'm not on the train, though. Just wanted to tell you quickly how I felt about those doctors.


  2. I appreciate your feedback. Hope my account didn't upset you too much…It's the fact that they could make a snap judgement without knowing me at all — they'd never spoken to me — that I find insensitive and insulting. I also don't think that there was any valid reason for them to voice their opinion of me to my wife.Luckily my wife and I have had 12 years to get used to each other and she knows me rather better than that.


  3. I'm a programmer too. Awesome. 😀 We have so much in common.I have a hard time with constantly being told how things "look", as if that is what matters most, and never being able to figure out how I'm going to come across to someone else. I can explain, but they call it excuses. I really don't know what to do anymore. Just shut up and let them think all the lies they want to, I guess?


  4. Another programmer. Yay! What languages/technologies, if you don't mind me asking? — after all this is a special interest of mine. ;)I've been told to "cheer up" any number of times when people misinterpret my lack of expression to mean I'm not happy — that can get a bit repetitive. After experiencing this most of my life I can say that I genuinely don't think about other people's opinion of me outside of maintaining the respect of my friends and colleagues.


  5. I'm quite a beginner, only have a couple years of experience actually working in IT support, and most of that I didn't do any programming but I have been working with computers a lot. Lately I've been getting into C# to build a specialized program to help project managers track the current status of the dozens of jobs the cabinet shop has going at any given time. It's become my one real source of feeling worthwhile, because the owner of the company (a friend of mine from church) and many of the other important people there are REALLY happy with my program.I've also done a bit of work on a server running Linux that handles our PBX software. I installed a module to transcribe voicemails to text and email them. I got it working but as far as accuracy goes…it's pretty much only good for some comic relief.I also have a lot of fun building computers, and generally keeping the whole system running well. My father is an advanced programmer, so I've gotten help from him. Computers are definitely a special interest of mine and I'm so glad I have a job working with them. It's a very good job.


  6. I've had a short spell in tech support which really didn't suit me, but there was a small amount of development writing a mail filter for sendmail. Otherwise it's been programming all the way. Mostly C and then C++ but also VB, C#, plenty of SQL and bits of Perl, Python and Java with some Unix shell scripting thrown in for good measure. I've done some sysadmin work along the way as well which was enjoyable.It's such a great feeling when people tell you that what you've produced is good. That's one of the most rewarding things about the job for me. Sounds like you're happy to be following your special interest as a career too, and I hope you do well at it.


  7. I've also worked with VB and SQL, but not much else. I'm in the very early stages of programming, because for a while there I resisted learning it because I didn't want to sit long enough. I've since gotten used to sitting because I got obsessed with writing (and wrote sixteen novels) so I don't mind that part of it anymore.My big dream is to open a bookstore that includes a coffee shop/cafe, art gallery, geek shop, live music events, and more. But until then, I'll probably be working with computers. And even then, I intend to have a computer repair service as part of my business and maybe also do programming on the side.


  8. It's just so unfair. You think they would be happy finally having someone not constantly pestering them with questions. And instead you get insulted and criticised at a time which is already emotionally upsetting (I can't imagine you were happy to be at the hospital, worrying about your wife). And they tell us WE'RE not empathic. For bloody eff's sake. I just want to slap them all.Anyway. About the identity stuff.I think for me, pinpointing who I am and how others see me is a bit futile. Who I am changes from day to day. Not in the "I don't have a personality" sense, but in the sense that my environment and the information I encounter and the things that I do add something to my experience and knowledge. I am in a constant state of amazement at myself and at the world. "Wow! I did the dishes today even though I didn't need to do it because I wanted to eat something! What made me do such a thing? Does that teach me something about myself?"And it just goes on and on. I am a richer, less ignorant person than I was yesterday, because I did the dishes in a new way and I read your enlightening comments on the job advice post. I'm also a poorer, less knowledgeable person, because I'm yet another day removed from how it felt to throw snowballs and because I forgot that I actually meant to post a follow-up comment here. The cycle never stops.How others see me? There's a few common threads but I actually find it interesting (although sometimes extremely painful) to hear how I come across. It can throw light on aspects of my personality that I wasn't aware of, or I can analyse it and say it just doesn't fit me at all, which teaches me something about myself (eliminating the impossible, as you say) but teaches me even more about the person seeing me. It's all in constant flux because their impression of me is influenced by their experiences up to that point as well. It might have been different yesterday. Or tomorrow. Or maybe they're so rigid that they would have treated me the same 10 years ago, in which case I feel pity and compassion.Because the end of growth and learning is the end of being alive.At least in my opinion.


  9. Better late than never 😉 And the fact that you did follow up proves you didn't forget. Sometimes life intervenes to disrupt our plans…I have to say I'm not so much worried about people forming an inaccurate impression of me as curious that it happens and curious about why that might be so: I tend to analyze things like this. A lot.A person as a collection of experiences and knowledge — it reminds me of something I read once but I can't recall where and I'm too proud to try and Google it. But of course any complex system is greater than the sum of its parts: they interact and combine and you get emergent behavior. Every new thing you add makes you richer in ways that multiply. The pursuit of knowledge and experiences enables us to grow and remakes us anew each day.A sense of amazement, of wonder, is an incredible gift — the most valuable thing I possess. It fuels curiosity, the drive to learn and grow. I love your statement "Because the end of growth and learning is the end of life." I believe that one tangible measure of a successful day is to have learned something that you didn't know the day before.Against the wonder of the play of light on the ground as the sun shines through the canopy of a tree, or the way a seed sprouts and a plant grows visibly day by day, or a rainbow 🙂 … when I've got all of that I don't need to waste time getting upset over somebody who doesn't empathize with me.Thank you for your detailed response and your opinion: I value it.PS: Thank you so much for the mention of throwing snowballs which triggered some very happy memories for me.


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