Most people know to look back when they open a door, in case there is someone behind them who might like to have that door held open: common courtesy. Fewer people, I should say, appreciate that the anger they feel about being stuck behind a slow driver is no different from the anger that will almost certainly be directed at them the next time they themselves are driving slowly. (You say it’s different, because you were looking for parking? And that other person was not?) Fewer still understand that the middle of a busy sidewalk, despite its impromptu charm, is not really a good place to conduct a conversation with friends—just step to the side, please. But the rarest form of self-awareness, the highest form of self-consciousness, is none of these. It is found so seldom that most of us have never known one who possessed it. In fact, because the cognitive prerequisites for this capacity are so great, I am confident that this self-awareness has never spontaneously developed in anyone under the age of thirty. I call it: Car Stereo Volume Self-Consciousness. The next time you are accompanied on a longer trip in a car, note that both you and your driving partner are constantly turning down each other’s music. And I do mean each other’s music; you turn down your driving partner’s music, and he turns down yours. If you have an especially candid relationship you might tentatively accuse your driving partner of listening to music far too loud. Your driving partner will accuse you of the same thing—but silently, because you said it first. As you can see, there are a number of hindrances to the dawning of this, the highest self-awareness. But if you think it over long enough, you will see that the situation, just like so many in human interaction, is perfectly symmetric. You both listen to your music too loud. How can this be? The solution may be difficult to come by, but is really quite elementary once you have it. When a song is familiar to you, you are prepared for the spikes in volume. Both the occasional vocal interjections and the semi-regular percussive attacks, surprising to the first-time listener, are already mapped out in some part of your brain; your ear knows to prepare for them, and even anticipates them; and this lessens the shock. The ears of your driving partner, on the other hand, are not prepared—and they suffer the consequences. The reciprocal situation is of course identical. You suffer from his unfamiliar music just as he suffers from yours. To recognize this is, in my estimation, nothing less than the highest form of self-awareness. There is none higher; it is the Absolute Knowledge of everyday human interaction. If you meet someone who possesses this knowledge, make him your friend, or, if it applies, the father of your children. He is undoubtedly a man of formidable virtue.


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