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A World of Strangers

I started writing a love song:

I like your posture,
I admire your gait,
I adore your glasses
And your license plate ...

I was only half joking. I am almost face-blind.

There's nothing wrong with my vision. I can recognize a distant bird or an obscure plant and call it by its scientific name faster than most Homo sapiens I've met. I think I'm even slightly ahead of artificial intelligence when it somes to visually interpreting printed text and traffic situations. What I can't do at all is recognize human faces.

Why can't Tamias recognize faces?

I may have lost my facial recognition at the age of two, when I fell out of a shopping cart at a grocery store and landed on my head. I don't remember how or whether I recognized faces before then. I think one of my earliest memories is of a store employee offering my dad a cold pack for my head, and I suspect that that memory is partly pieced together from hearing the story later. I remember understanding that the stranger's intention was helpful, and I remember not knowing what a cold pack was or how it was supposed to help. At that stage of life, I don't think I was tracking calendar time enough to notice if something was different about me after hitting my head. I've heard one other person say that they'd lost some facial recognition ability after a blow to the back of the head years before, and hadn't regained it.

Another theory is that my ability to recognize plants, birds, printed text, etc. is occupying parts of my brain that could have been brilliant at facial recognition. That's plausible to me, since I grew up with a limited number of faces being important in my world. I needed to recognize my extended family and our close friends, maybe 30 or 40 people in total. Other kids of my generation might've been learning hundreds or thousands of faces in school, extracurricular groups, TV, movies and so on.

Thinking of my distant ancestors growing up in tribal situations, I suppose recognizing a limited number of humans and a vast number of plants is more of an evolutionary norm than recognizing a vast number of humans and no plants.

I have a hard time with eye contact. I mean, eye contact can be nice, but I experience it as intense, sometimes more intense than physical contact.

Am I not recognizing people because I don't look at them long enough to learn what they look like, or do I feel overwhelmed when I make eye contact because I'm never quite sure who I'm looking at? Even if I'm intellectually certain about who it is I'm looking at, my felt sense of who it is can shift between certainty and total uncertainty. Is that a common experience? It doesn't match what I hear and read about other people's experiences of eye contact.

It might be a self-reinforcing loop: I don't spend much time looking at faces, so I don't recognize faces, so looking at faces feels unsettling and exhausting, so I avoid looking at faces, and so on.

It's not just that. It's also that I'm doing the work of remembering, knowing, that any being I interact with is more different from me than I can possibly imagine.

This year, paying more attention to marginalized spiritual experience in myself and others, I'm finding that many people either assume that all humans are essentially alike, or experience themselves as unique while assuming that all other humans are essentially alike. I don't assume people are alike at all. I assume, based on my lived experience, that the real differences in inner experience among humans are greater than any difference I can imagine in my wildest dreams (and I have some wild ones.) Wondering about beings that might experience themselves differently, I'm imagining a rock, a lichen, a meme and a neutron star. Supposing they each have some kind of conscious internal experience, and not assuming that they'd assign any meaning to concepts like "internal," "conscious" or "experience," I can stretch my imagination wondering how it might feel to be each of those things. That's only the range that's accessible to my waking mind today. I assume that the range of human experience is incomparably more varied, in ways I can't possibly begin to imagine.

Try this, but consider getting prior consent from the person you're about to try it with: Hold eye contact for as long as you feel able to, while telling yourself that the being looking back at you is so different, so completely alien to you, there's no language you could possibly speak in common that could begin to describe the differences. That's about how I feel every time I make eye contact, except that what you feel is not necessarily anything like what I feel. All I can do is point in a direction that may or may not make any sense from your perspective.

I don't even have my past or future selves to identify with. Tamias of the past was so different from me, and so far from knowing me. All I can guess about Tamias of the future is that it will find me just as foreign. I live in a world of strangers.

Living without facial recognition,
I've learned other ways to recognize people.

Posture and gait are among the most useful. Most people I meet have ways of carrying themselves that are consistent over time, and different among individuals.

I rely on hairstyles immensely, and clothing somewhat. One summer, when I was working at a YMCA kids' camp where my younger sister was a camper, she disappeared! A new camper mysteriously appeared in her group mid-session, but I didn't pay much attention, I was busy watching my own group of younger campers and worrying about where my sister was. When I asked my sister's group leader where she was, he laughed at me. That was just mean. He was supposed to be taking care of her.

It turned out that he knew, and everyone except me knew, that all my sister had done was borrow some clothes from another camper in her group, and let them do her hair. I was looking for a yellow sun hat, track pants, one of two hairstyles and one of three or four familiar T-shirts. The new camper wore skinny jeans and a French braid, so I was a long way from figuring out she was actually my sister.

I never did get much empathy for the stressful experience of noticing my sister was missing.

Facial hair marks a person in a way I can recognize, but then, people sometimes shave, or stop shaving, and then Tamias doesn't have a clue who it's talking to. A close neighbour, someone I've seen and talked to hundreds of times, recently shaved for the first time since I met him. I can't handle it. His posture, gait, mannerisms, voice and way of speaking are all very distinctive and familiar, so I still recognize him as long as I can't see his face. The minute he turns toward me, I perceive a total stranger. It's extremely unsettling. I guess I was in the habit of recognizing him primarily by his beard.

Makeup is awful. It makes friends and family look like strangers every time... unless I get used to a person wearing it, and then I can't recognize them without it. My uncle once showed me a photo of a total stranger, obviously assuming I knew who it was. In retrospect, I guess I wasn't thinking or talking about face-blindness at that point in my life. I was much too embarrassed to ask my uncle who was in the photo. Very, very slowly it dawned on me that the stranger in the photo was his wife, my beloved aunt, a familiar adult of my childhood. I'd never seen her without her makeup.

As I get to know a person, I increasingly rely on the sound of their voice as a way to recognize them, and I'm noticing that I feel attracted to people's voices more than to faces. I was more than half joking as the song continued:

I like your posture,
I admire your gait,
I adore your glasses
And your license plate...

And if anyone imitated
All of those,
To fool me, they'd have to
Borrow your clothes.

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A World of Strangers by Tamias Nettle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.