Monday, October 5, 2009

To Be Or Not To Be Yourself

Our expectations of what other people are and should be, what we are and should be, are so complicated. I have encountered a lot of instances recently in which people tell me they need to drink alcohol to bring out the anger they wish they had more of, or that they need to smoke pot to calm the inner anger. We all wish we could be something other than what we are, some idealized version of the perfect self we see in our mind’s eye yet cannot quite reach despite a bevy of substances. The funny thing is, though, that we are all seeking someone out there, some appreciative other, who sees who we really are and thinks we’re awesome, maybe not even in spite of the warts but because of them. Not that we like ourselves, but wouldn’t it be great if someone else did?

I went out with a friend last night to see Lucinda Williams in the city and, on the train, ran into one of my cafĂ© pals. I waved and waved but he didn’t seem to see me until he was almost upon me. He blamed his momentary blindness on age and on the fact, he acknowledged, that he was, as usual “in my own head.”

The reason he was so wrapped up in his thoughts this particular evening was because he was headed out on a date and was trying, desperately he said, to determine what not to say.

I laughed. “What not to say? You’re not worried about what you will say but what you won’t say, what you shouldn’t say?”

“That’s right,” he said. “Like I probably shouldn’t mention how I have this little muffin top over my jeans, which is why I’m wearing this jacket…I’ll keep the jacket on.”

Again,I laughed. I'd have given a gold star if I'd had one, but I was off duty.

“Hmmm,"I said," Maybe you're right...I guess that might be a third-date conversation."

Then, though, I stopped to think. Sure, maybe there are things you shouldn’t say, but isn’t that lame? Fake? I know this guy, not well, but enough to know he is a great conversationalist, that he says his mind, even to perfect strangers like me. It was how we had started talking, openly, about anything and everything.

“Come on, though,” I said. “Are you really going to be able to hold back? And do you want to? That’s not who you are, and if it’s going to work, doesn’t the other person have to like you for who you are?”

We pondered this universal question as we headed into Manhattan, until we parted ways, my friend and I wishing him—and his date—a lovely evening and, hopefully, a love connection.

I was discussing today in a phone conversation with a friend this question of who we really are versus who we sometimes feign to be at the beginning of a relationship. She is not long married and is, like me, like everyone, trying to navigate the murky waters of long-term relationship. She all of a sudden came to an epiphany.

“Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the problem!” she said. “Now, my husband and I are so ourselves, we’re not putting on a show anymore. We just come home, let it all hang out, watch TV…when he put on airs, he was hotter than hot. And I…well, let’s just say the guy I flirt with in the bike shop doesn’t know how deeply disturbed I am. That’s why it’s fun! That’s why it makes me feel good!”

It is a crazy Catch-22, trying to both be your real self but be your best self, to be both the self you like and the one that your partner will continue to appreciate, for the long haul. It is a tall order, a tippy balance at best. Gold star to everyone who tries.

In the park yesterday, sitting in the grass watching our son and his friends yank mercilessly at a tree, my husband and I watched as a man rode by on the nearby path on his bike. He looked briefly at us then looked back again.

“Wow, he just did a double take,” my hubby said, seemingly shocked, looking at me to try to determine if the man had been staring at me, and if so, why.

“Hmmm. Do you think I’m double-take worthy?” I asked.

“I guess I don’t know. I mean I think you’re hot, but you’re my wife. I don’t know what a passerby might see,” my adoring husband responded. Thanks.

“Well, maybe you should walk by as if you’re a stranger, see what you think,” I said. This is the fun you have after 17 years. He obliged, getting up and walking a few paces to the sidewalk, heading away and then back toward me, trying to see me with fresh eyes.

As he came back across the path, he just shook his head. “I know you too well. It doesn’t work.”

We just laughed. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to see one another anew. All we can do is try to present the best old version.

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