Earlier this week, someone told me I am the most well adjusted person he knows. To really appreciate this comment, it should be said this is an exceptionally wise person. If he weren’t a resident of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, he’d probably live high in the Himalayan Mountains. People would climb the treacherous cliffs just to ask him deep questions about the meaning of life. Then, he would stroke his long, white beard thoughtfully and answer with something like, “Life is like macaroni and cheese…” and no one would understand his philosophical and enigmatic responses. This is why I started to wonder how I could seem so well adjusted—like I said, he’s a super smart dude…and I fooled him.
Kids of preachers and pastors (P.K.’s) are often skilled at making it look like we’ve got it all figured out. Even if no one ever tells you to get your act together because the members of your father’s congregation are looking at you, you can sense it. You sit on the front pew and feel the eyes boring in to your ponytail. You just know they’re watching to see if you fight with your sisters or get too many desserts at the Sunday night potluck dinner. After a while, it’s possible to forget what you really think or feel and only live in the expectations you’ve absorbed from that front pew.
But it’s not just for P.K.’s. Being truly authentic will always be a struggle for some of us. And now, with the advent of Facebook, it’s even harder. We’ve become professional image consultants and fact spinners. We’ll post parenting failures and cooking disasters but only to the extent we can control the story. We want to look fallible without looking like a total failure. It’s like the girl who said, “I know this is bad but I’ve never donated blood before. I feel horrible about it but you have to weigh more than 100 lbs.” Yeah, you feel really bad about being TOO SKINNY. That’s a like a backhanded compliment, but with opposite intentions.
Of course, it’s possible to be overly transparent. Status updates about eating your placenta or how your marriage is falling apart may be crossing the line. Mark Zuckerberg may think that belongs in my newsfeed but I beg to differ. Transparency is one thing. Ripping open your guts and showing us the contents of your large intestines is another.
So how do I strike the right balance to live a life of authenticity? How do I set aside what others think of me and just be honest? Does it involve swearing off mascara and never shaving my legs? Who knows. Maybe it’s different for everybody. What I do know is that I prefer to spend time with people who are honest about their flaws but not consumed by them. They are so busy being interested in others they don’t have time to focus on their own mess. Their mess is out there, not white-washed and swept under the rug, but there for a reason—to keep them humble and empathic.
I can’t say it any better than the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”