Imagine walking on a glass floor held up by thousands – 180,000 to be exact – of little plastic people. All of them do the same thing: they hold their hands to support the floor, making it strong enough for crowds to walk on.
All cast from the same mold, identical in size, and designed specifically for their task as “floor bearers,” these figurines silently and obediently reach up, keeping the glass level and bearing the pressure as real-life feet stride across them.
This floor hit me as a striking metaphor. By all agreeing to the same rules, it’s pretty incredible what we can accomplish. Holding up floors and fencing off forces have nothing on the other stuff we humans do together: as organizations, societies, even as a species.
But Suh’s work also hints at the price we pay for this conformity.
Looking at his floor, I sense how much of what we navigate in life is built upon a set of rules we may not even know we’re following. The way we interact with others, the things we do and buy and wear, even the way we view ourselves: all are shaped by the norms we’re exposed to and live with throughout our lives.
We follow trends and participate in memes. We respond, consciously and unconsciously, to signals we receive from the people and world around us, shaping our behavior to fit in.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Like all living things (at least all I can think of) we exist in relationship to others around us. Our ability to organize ourselves into functional social order is probably one of the characteristics that favored our species to survive.
Yet at the scale and complexity of modern society many of us feel stress, anxiety, and pressure as part of the price we pay for belonging.
The myth we build together is that belonging, succeeding, fitting in is the result of obeying the rules and keeping up with everyone and everything around us. The myth speaks to us from Facebook pages, fashion magazines, billboards, and car lots; in social settings and sometimes in classroom settings, conference rooms, or places where people gather around shared beliefs. In all of those settings we’re unconsciously evaluating the tradeoffs between elevating our own beliefs and conforming to the beliefs the majority agrees to.
Yet as we strive to do that we, like others around us, help elevate the myth.
This post is about awareness, not answers. It’s not about changing the rules or defying them: rather, it’s about being aware of the many ways the collective reality affects us as we experience our lives.
It’s also about challenging our notion of success. Is our definition based upon a collective agreement we’ve all unconsciously made about what success is?
Or is it about an awareness of our purpose and the satisfaction we seek as we work to align with it?
As you walk through your day today, on city sidewalks or up your building’s stairs or through the corridors of some sweeping business office, imagine all of the people whose agreement to rules literally supports the ground under your feet. Our desire to fit in has let us create many great things together; in some ways it’s even enabled us to survive.
But it can also quiet our voices when our hearts say “Speak out!” and keep us compliant when we imagine a better way. It may invalidate a voice inside that questions the world we see around us: a voice that whispers something about others’ views of success not being the ones we have to live by.
Artists, some say, use a visual language to tell a story we don’t need words to understand. What does Suh’s floor say to you about the myth we create together and (for better or for worse) the hands that hold it up and the feet that walk on it?