Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787

When I was in grade school I told my mother that a teacher did not like me. “So,” my mother responded. “Not everyone’s going to.” Later I learned that my mother was at least concerned that I wasn’t being mistreated when she told me of her conference with this very teacher upon collecting my report card. My mother inquired about my concerns after the teacher offered me glowing praise. “Your teacher likes you,” my mother said. “That woman told me that she often gives attention to children who are misbehaving because their actions demand it, which means that she, unfortunately, doesn’t always pay adequate attention to those who are doing what they are supposed to be doing.” “Oh,” is all I could muster in reply. “See,” she said. “I sure am glad that I didn’t go in there accusing that woman of the crime of disliking you.” My mother was quite annoyed by my raising this issue with her.

Whether or not my teacher liked me became an important moment in my maturation because it made me aware of popularity as something that I would need to pay attention to. It became an issue that I would continue thinking about in order to determine why it would or should concern me.

According to Alain de Botton, popularity is an ancient concern. In Part I of The Consolations of Philosophy, specifically the first chapter on “Popularity,” de Botton reflects on Socrates’ decision to defy the popular voices that had accused him of “failing to worship the city’s gods, introducing religious novelties and corrupting the young men of Athens.” Socrates chose to continue pursuing his calling, contending that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and understanding that the consequence of his choice was death. de Button thinks that evidence of the significance of Socrates’s death may be marked in its repeated appearance in paintings. The nobility and courage found in Socrates’ choice certainly makes a compelling subject. It underscores the dignity, integrity, joy, and abundance some find in pursuing an intellectual life. His costly choice dramatically indicates the value that otherwise reads as a privileged fancy. That he would have to die for rejecting the crowd also illustrates the seriousness of neglecting the significance of popularity as a meaningful consideration. Perhaps my mother’s silent worry about my popularity with my teacher concerned violent consequences, as I recall my own childish concerns, they were only about popularity as an idea in my teacher’s head. I wanted the idea of myself in her head to match the one that I held of myself. Now I understand this to be a child’s concern as adults are less worried about ideas, attitudes, and opinions that they cannot control and are not responsible for as figments in someone else’s head than they are the consequences of those ideas, attitudes, and opinions.

Indeed, there are consequences for being unpopular, but you get to decide how you will face them, and even how much those consequences matter to you. So one of the tasks involved in facing this issue of popularity is to separate the emotional component from the intellectual component so that you can decide how you want to move forward with the realization that you are not popular. This step might be enough to convince you that you might not even care whether or not you’re popular with someone or some group of people. This happened to me when I decided it took too much time and effort to befriend my husband’s colleagues. Once I made that decision, it meant that I stopped trying to make small talk about matters that I found of no interest; it meant that I did not go to social events where we were invited as a couple or even when I was invited alone to fete them at baby showers or engagement parties. I knew there would be a penalty and I decided that I didn’t mind paying it. At first, my husband was uncomfortable with my decision–especially when he felt that he had to cover my feelings for his colleagues with a lie. After we talked about it, I told him that he didn’t have to lie. I was perfectly fine with him telling his colleagues the truth: I did not like them. Now of course, he didn’t have to be so direct he could have made excuses, which he did for a while but eventually he had to be direct because these people were invested in sowing dissension. He felt that he always needed to explain my absence or defend me after they made some snide remark about my seeming lack of involvement in his life. (This has the potential to bother me even as I write about it now. Who were his co-workers to think they had some right to make a claim about me and my involvement in my husband’s life based on their invitations. It was all absurd as far as I was concerned.) I certainly thought about my husband’s feelings regarding this matter and it points to an important aspect of this issue: whatever decisions you make concerning your feelings about popularity, they will impact other people. You will have to think about how to negotiate the matter of collateral damage. I’m not sure how Socrates’s wife and his three sons responded to his decision to answer his calling but I know that the needs of my own family certainly inform my zeal about most things.

You might decide that my mother’s response to whether or not someone likes you should be yours as well: “So,” she said. “Not everyone’s going to.” You might just decide that one person’s dislike for you or even a group of peoples’ dislike does not deserve a special news bulletin–especially when you understand that people can dislike you and still be fair or not seek to do you harm. I’ve recognized in my own life that there are times when I acknowledge not liking someone as a way of taking measure of my own views. Thus, I claim the feelings so that I might work out what I am claiming to value. Currently, I have neighbors who I do not like. I don’t like that they have two pit bulls who routinely slip out of the gate; I don’t like that the dogs bark all night; I don’t like that my neighbors don’t keep their grass cut; I don’t like that they sometimes tie their dogs to a sapling that sits between our yards; I don’t like how loud they play their music. I could continue with this chronicle but the point is that by listing even these dislikes I am at the same time highlighting my views of neighborliness and what I think it means to live in a community with other people. It reveals the compromises that I think need to be made regarding your own particular tastes when others are involved. My dislikes further reveal the importance that I place on considering the safety of those around me and not just my own. Thus, when popularity becomes an intellectual matter and not just an emotional one, it can illuminate things that you value and find meaningful; it doesn’t have to involve harm as a consequence. I don’t plan on harming my neighbors nor do I want harm to befall them. We loan them things when they ask and I even bought nearly $50 worth of gourmet cookie dough from their daughter who was selling it as a part of a school fundraiser. We’re still cooperative despite my negative appraisal. I wouldn’t mind if my neighbors moved and because I know why I don’t like them, I have a better sense of who I would like to move-in instead.

Like and love are not the same thing. I would imagine that most religions tell you to love your neighbors but I don’t imagine there being a command to like them. I always appreciated the moment in Rocky IV after Rocky beats Drago and he tells the Russian audience in attendance at the fight that there was a time when they didn’t like him and that he guesses that “I didn’t like you much none either.” When I was a child, such a response to being disliked was one I had not considered; now, it’s one of my earliest considerations: do I like them? Despite how you answer this question, the possibility of working well with them does not depend on mutual affection; that just makes it easier.

Despite my mother’s irritation, I greatly benefited from her initial reaction and her concluding one. Even though I’ve grown-up and have thankfully learned some valuable lessons about popularity, the terms of social media oversimplify the matter. I can’t ignore the fact that you can “Like” this post by clicking the very button this site makes available–I’ll have to think a little more about that one.

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