The Chicken or the Kernel

There is an old joke that goes like this:

A man is admitted to the psych ward for some severe neurosis. The doctors discover that the man suffers from the belief that he is a kernel of corn, and he is terrified that a rodent or small animal like a chicken might eat him if given the chance!

The doctors embark on a series of treatments and eventually convince the man that he is not in fact a piece of corn, but a living, breathing, and powerful human being, and that no chicken is going to eat him. The man thanks the doctors, and bids them goodbye.

On the way out of the clinic, he spots a chicken by the path, and runs back into the ward shouting in fear. “Doctor!” He shouts, “It’s the chicken! The Chicken! He’s going to eat me!”
“Now, now,” says the doctor, “We’ve already explained to you that you are not a kernel of corn, you are a man.”
“Yes, I know that,” says the man, “But does the chicken know that?”

Most people understand this joke to be about the frailty of our convictions–that we don’t really believe what we claim to believe. The thing that most people miss is that this joke is also about social anxiety, and the importance of shared belief systems. We’re not scared of being a kernel of corn; we’re scared of being attacked by someone who mistakes us for a kernel of corn. We don’t just want to be who we are. We want others to see us the way we want to be seen. Many of our social anxieties stem from the fear that others do not see us as we wish to be seen, or worse, that they never will.