In two weeks, I will be married in a large Indian wedding. I will be bombarded by eyes: six hundred and sixty eyes, to be exact. Three hundred and thirty pairs. And the thought of that scares me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited for the wedding and elated to be marrying an amazing man. I believe it’ll be a wonderful time, and I’m touched that guests will be there to share the moment with us. But still, I can’t help but be nervous. They say the bride is the center of attention at a wedding. She makes a celebrated entrance at the ceremony after everyone is seated. People turn and look and take pictures. Later, she and the groom make their grand entrance into the reception as husband and wife. Yes, the attention is on both the bride and groom that day, but it is the bride who is (in Indian tradition) covered with jewels and makeup and henna paint and glistening embroidery. She doesn’t see any of these things as she steps into the reception hall; they are all for the benefit of other people’s eyes.
As the date of our wedding grows near, I’m increasingly nervous about having everyone look at me. I become self-conscious and freeze up. When I would walk down crowded corridors in high school, I’d sometimes feel so self conscious that I’d forget how to walk. My joints felt stiff, my limbs unfamiliar. I don’t know if anyone else could tell, but to me my movements felt forced and robotic. How does my knee bend again?
It’s funny to think that all this fretting is based on some electrical impulses in someone else’s brain. Some people can live their lives without concern for other people’s gazes and judgments. Most of us can’t. How does what someone else thinks affect us like it does?
We’re born without this awareness. We may be imbued with an immediate ability to orient ourselves toward faces in our surroundings, but it takes longer for us to follow someone else’s gaze, surmise what they can see, and, at around three or four years of age, draw conclusions about what they know and believe from what they’ve seen. It’s amazing that we as humans make this leap at all.
The human capacity to believe in and theorize about other people’s thoughts is called Theory of Mind, and it is a major topic of study in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. It harkens back to the philosophical question: how do we know that other people are sentient? And it’s true: you (or in my case, me) could very possibly be the only sentient being that exists. How could you tell? And yet we believe in others’ sentience so strongly that it can control us or terrify us.
That others have thoughts is hypothetical to begin with, and yet most people place so much of their self-worth in what other people think. How many people worry that they’re too fat or too bald or too old? How many of the people who fill the high-class gyms here in LA would go if no one could see and admire the results?
As much as I’d like to fearlessly dive into the crowd at my wedding, I know that I’ll be scared. Theory of Mind is a gift, but it can also be a curse. I know I’m a strong and capable woman who belongs to herself. But no matter how I frame it, in two weeks I will belong to the eyes as well.