Who we are in the eyes of the world is something most of us care about. How we are seen, valued, judged and whether we are accepted. In theory, a reputation should be the consequence of who we are and what we do, and thus something we have control over, but in practice it is seldom that simple.
The easiest place to point for examples is the arts. Look at any breakthrough creator who changed things radically – Beethoven, Van Gogh – they were criticised far more than they were loved in their lifetimes. Even The Beatles were considered rowdy bad boys when they first appeared, and it’s only after decades that they’ve become something more ‘establishment’. The first impressionists were mocked. The reputations of many creative people aren’t defined until after their death, and there many ‘greats’ who, during their own lives, were never recognised.
On the flip side history is also full of people who were massively popular at the time, and have faded into obscurity since. Name a composer of Music Hall songs, or the kind of gothic romance author Jane Austin was mocking in Northanger Abbey, or any of the chivalric novels Cervantes took the piss out of with Don Quixote. Ten years hence, most of the ‘pop idol’ reality TV show folk will have been forgotten. Some reputations are vastly inflated for short periods – undeserved (to my mind) attention went to Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray recently, but they’re already slipping into the shadows, and I doubt in a hundred years time, anyone will have heard of them.
Reputation, therefore, is not always deserved. It’s also not something we can control, no matter how good our PR. Most of us of course will never have PR, never have to worry about posterity, or how history will judge us, and that too is a sort of judgement. Most of our ancestors are not in the history books.
Regardless of how many people we’re dealing with, reputation is a key part of how we interact with others, and reputations can be nothing more than a web of lies with a sugar coating of sparkly misdirection. We all make up stories and myths about ourselves, and other people make their own stories about us, too. Reputation is the unnatural child of these stories.
Those in the public eye can spend a fortune trying to manage their reputations and appearance. The rest of us may be no less obsessed, but less well funded, and with a smaller audience to play to, we have to make our own fun… Social media may have made us far more conscious of how we construct our public personas, but it doesn’t put us in charge.
There is a part of ourselves we may never truly know, and certainly can’t do much to control, but which will influence our lives and options in countless ways. That aspect is who other people think we are, what of us they latch onto, what of other people’s stories they choose to believe, what they forgive, and don’t forgive, what they think was deliberate, and what they think we did by accident, or by mistake.
Or we can do our best to meet each other without assumption, to take each other at face value, to deal with the reality of what’s going on, not second guessing based on what we think we know