Ever ask yourself what you want to be when you grow up? Do you find some corner of your mind noting the passage of years and whispering to you that perhaps you are never going to grow up? Do you sometimes feel that you are still a child, carrying your burden of childish desires, whims, and (especially) fears through a world of adults?
I sure do.
One of the few comforts about it is that as that voice from the corner of my mind has gotten louder and more insistent with the years, I have also become more and more convinced that most other people are just pretending, too.
That helps…most of the time. I think it was Kierkegaard who said that all human unhappiness was due to comparisons. We think the other person is doing better, has more, is smarter, thinner, etc. We think that by this time (whenever that is) we should have become better, have more, have acted smarter, be thinner, etc. We compare our (rather skewed) perceptions of where we are to other people or to some expectation of our own and are unhappy with the result. To make matters worse, we often think that the world is watching our sorry performance and judging it as harshly as we do.
No one is more guilty of this sort of this sort of morbid self-flagellation than the typical adolescent. Obsessed with standards from outside, they awkwardly, desperately try to mimic their ideals of grace and savoir faire. While the world twists and reshapes itself around them, they have only one assurance: “The world is watching me make a fool of myself”
Do you remember? Whatever the reality of the situation, we were convinced that the pimple on our nose on prom night was a huge and awful mass, glowing with a neon redness. We were also sure that everyone in the room was secretly staring at it and laughing at our expense.
I would love to say that this is not one of the aspects of youth that carries into our later years. I would love to say that, but in my own case it would not be true. Being a retarded child, I toted that self-obsessed klutzdom, absolutely unrelieved, right along well into my thirties.
What is saddest (not to mention odd) about the whole thing is that a belief in your own buffoonery is so essentially humorless. This is particularly true in the adult male, where this level of self-consciousness acquires an additional charming fixation for hearing any kind of criticism as rejection.
However, this column is not about how defensive self-consciousness is beyond cure. It is about how you can both find a cure and, along with it, a great fringe benefit. It is just that looking back on the unrelieved, prickly seriousness with which I viewed my flaws, I find that person singularly uncharming.
Well, maybe I am being too hard on the twit. He must have had some talents, for he managed to gain the love of a very gifted lady. Most remarkable among those gifts was an ability to convey at one and the same moment the idea that some behavior of mine was totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated coupled with the message that it had no affect on her love for me. That double message is hard enough to shape, but to get me to hear it strikes me as bordering on the miraculous.
Once upon a time she told me that she thought that I did not laugh at myself enough. To imply to a morbidly self-conscious male that he is ludicrous is not a conversational beginning that I would normally recommend.
As I recall, I started to puff up a bit, working my way towards a defensive rage. Being the sort of lady she was, she refused to be deflected by anything as minor as that. I used to have the same problem, she said. This implication of superior maturity being another tactic I can’t wholly recommend. I stepped up the burgeoning anger a notch.
Honestly, she said, once you learn to appreciate what an idiot you are, you’ll never lack for entertainment!
That line (slightly expurgated for a family publication …she did not day “idiot”), burst my bubble completely. Somehow it immediately put us on a companionable plane of mutual idiocy. It was so beautifully outrageous, so wonderfully pointed and so deadly accurate about how I was acting at that very moment that I found it absolutely irresistible.
Over the years since, I cannot think of a single idea that has been more useful. I have gradually learned to appreciate my own consistent idiocy, my clumsy self-consciousness and my overblown ego. I can’t say that because of it I have avoided sounding like a pompous fool on occasion. What I can say is that it has guaranteed that I would appreciate the ludicrous figure I cut at such moments.
I suppose that if it had somehow “cured” me of the problem, it would cease to be useful. However, there seems to be no risk of that. The lady knew me well. I continue (and suspect I always will) to provide myself with a daily ration of something wonderfully absurd to laugh at.