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PAPERWORK: Oh, is that the tie you’re going to wear?

“I don’t care what people think.”

That’s what I tell myself … now and then.

You know what I mean. There are a thousand and one scenarios that invite this declaration.

I’m not really telling myself, of course. Generally I’m announcing it to someone else. Often the wife.

Scenario 1: Are you going to wear that?

Scenario 2: Can you sweep off all the spider webs from the front of the house?

Scenario 3: You need to wash the truck. Mow the yard. Clean the gutters. Ya-da, ya-da, ya-da.

Scenario 1001: If you do (insert whatever), what will people think?

That’s what it comes down to. Yes? That question. What will people think?

Chores around the house probably are a poor example. After all, the grass does need mowing. Gutters do need cleaning.

But it’s not just about proper maintenance. There’s always a judgment factor. What will people think if I don’t do what’s expected?

I can grumble and protest, but I do care how the truck looks. And the grass. The house.

And me.

What will people think? That is a powerful and driving question.

You cannot avoid it. That question has been influencing your life long before you were tying your shoes and dressing yourself.

Mom and Dad were deciding how to comb or shape your hair. They gave you your name.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Or that it’s a great thing. Probably both. And as we grow up it’s something we all have to deal with.

I’m not sure when it kicks in. I’m trying to recall when I realized I cared about what others thought of me.

I’m not sure it’s a memory or a recognizable moment in time. I think it begins with the first touch. The warmth of contact. The voice that comforts.

Perhaps it begins as a feeling. When something feels good, we want more. And at some point in time, we learn how to get more. Get attention.

We do care what people think. Because those people begin with Mom and Dad. Then family. And they give us what we need and want.

Babies cry for a reason. Then they learn to walk and talk. And so it begins.

We learn quickly that how we act and what we say brings reaction. We also discover early that reaction can also be negative.

Caring about what Mom and Dad think becomes pretty critical. (It’s even more fun when you toss brothers and sisters into the mix. And grandparents.)

I think we cross some kind of line, though, when we venture into the world of other people. Suddenly we are standing in a crowd and wonder how we fit.

Actually the crowd is others our own age. We are tossed into an educational system where what other people think is essential.

Welcome to a universe of judgment. Grades. Performance. Abilities. Attitude. Behavior.

The importance of fitting in takes root. And grows. The need remains strong and constant, don’t you think?

Now I’m also trying to remember when I might have first uttered those defiant words.

“I don’t care what other people think.”

I have no idea when I first mumbled such protest. Teen years would be a good guess.

It’s not true, of course. I’m not sure I realized that the first time I said it. But it’s pretty clear to me now.

I still say it now, but know it’s not true. Protest as much as you want, but you know you care what others think.

God bless the mirror. It allows us to prejudge ourselves for the outside world.

Perfume or cologne. Jewelry. Makeup. Shaving. Our hair. Suits and ties. On and on. You get it.

I think it goes back to that first touch. And how it made us feel.

It does feel good to be loved. Indeed.

Join me in a little experiment.

I’ve been mentioning the obvious stuff. Our appearance. What people see. First impressions. Lasting impressions.

But look around you. Your home, for example.

There are photos displayed. Artwork. The living room couch. The bedspread.

This is your world. Private but also on display. For guests, other family and friends.

I have posters and mementoes splattered all over my den. I like them around me. Voices that nudge or remind or just make me feel good.

But that’s not the reason they are there. They are not there for me. Even the artwork framed in the living room is not there for me.

It’s all there because it is me. And I want others to see it. And understand.

Understand that it all is about me. Or us because it’s a family home and it’s not just me. But certain parts are.

It’s all there because I do care what other people think.

But I want them to see all of me. Inside me. And to like what they see.

The reason is simple enough. Goes back to that first touch. Hug. Comforting voice.

Which, I guess, was my point all along.

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to lonnyjcain@gmail.com or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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