“Sometimes he was such a construction of his own carefully constructed censorships and restraints he didn’t know whether there was any longer a creature named Bern Cameron (Invader, C.J. Cherryh, Daw Books, 1995, p.330)
When I read this sentence I was so struck by its eloquence that I thought it was worth writing about. The book itself, by the way, is a good read but nothing amazing, so I don’t think I need to provide any background to it. The statement stands on its own two feet.
Fact is, we all construct how we present ourselves to the world. It’s necessary, though some might work harder at it than others. Despite the encouragement by some to “let it all hang out” or “tell it like it is”, the reality is we choose carefully what we reveal and what we don’t. And we need to.
I have noticed that blue collar workers tend to be more upfront than white collar workers. Not quite sure why, but it might have something to do with them not having to climb a corporate ladder. They tend to tell it like it is, sometimes to their detriment. I had a plasterer who did the work for our renovation a few years ago, and although he was a pleasant enough fellow, he had no problem poking fun at some of the work I had done myself. Not a good thing to do to a customer, and I haven’t exactly enthused about him to others as a result. And I have heard similar stories from some of my friends, of tradies belittling them.
Now of course it’s not all bad. As a matter of fact I find it mostly refreshing being around such people, and I have the good fortune of having a number of them as friends. Perhaps in white collar circles we are so used to having to work with different persons or groups that we learn to smooth over our personal opinions, in order to make the deal or complete the task or keep the client. It may also be true that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more likely you are to hide your opinions and real self more and more. There are more and more people you have to keep happy and working with you, not against you.
But let’s just think of the cost for a minute. I don’t think white collar workers are the same at home as they are at work, but I do think that ingrained behaviours spill out into other parts of our life. Hence even outside of work, those used to hiding their feelings and opinions on the job may well find that they still do so to some extent at home or with friends.
I’m in a moderately corporate kind of job, and certainly have to keep my clients happy, so I suppose I’m pretty used to masking my feelings and softening my opinions in order to do my job well, keep my clients and build my business. That’s perhaps why, recently, I was quite impacted by a guest speaker at one of our conferences, a guy by the name of Peter Sharp.
Peter’s mission in life is to encourage people to trust enough to connect with one another. He does this by staging a number of provocative events in public, videoing them and then putting them up on YouTube.
There’s no doubt his antics are popular, as evidenced by how many of his videos have gone viral. His most recent one was staging sit-ins in public places where people were encouraged to simply sit and stare into a complete stranger’s eyes for one minute. The video is quite moving, though the sceptic in me is a little bugged by it, as it is a highly polished piece of work with that background music that is supposed to make you all touchy feeley. I instinctively react against things that are trying to pull my heart strings, and his videos do feel like a lot of others that I have seen. With one important exception – I get what he’s trying to do, and I like it.
In line with my comments about white collar workers hiding their true selves at work, my favourite video clip from Peter is one where he, dressed in a business suit in a busy business district, wanders into a public fountain and starts to dance to music, ripping off his tie and jacket and just freely dancing though sopping wet. It’s completely staged of course, but that’s okay. Others (most of them actors but not all) jump into the fountain and dance along with him.
What he is doing is stepping outside the confines that we put ourselves in, that most of us get suffocated by. And that’s the way of the world. I don’t think the answer is in throwing those protective measures away, but that doesn’t mean we have to be dictated by them all the time.
There’s a reason why we don’t dance on a train (another of his videos). We’re going somewhere, for a start, and we may tired or preoccupied. There’s a reason why we don’t look everyone in the eye, because we don’t want or need to connect meaningfully with everyone. (And if we did dance in the train every day it would become meaningless after a while anyway).
But to step out from behind our masks and our fear, just often enough to remind ourselves how human everyone is, to allow ourselves to touch others and be touched by them, is surely a wonderful thing. Surely it fills us up, even if we have to go back to some kind of routine and even if we do have to maintain some degree of separateness from others. Just maybe we allow ourselves to feel a little more, to trust a little more, to be a little more vulnerable. Vulnerability can actually be a very beautiful and disarming thing.
Of course, our self censorship doesn’t just apply to our job. Some of us censor ourselves mercilessly because we are terrified that the real self will be repugnant to others – we censor ourselves because we just want to be liked. In the process we make ourselves, sadly, beholden to the opinions of others, and we become again trapped inside a facade.
I was a much more outspoken and demonstrative person in my youth. I was also socially extremely clumsy and shudder now as I remember some of the insensitive and totally inappropriate things I occasionally did. ( I’ve forgiven myself for the things I simply did not know how to do, but I do still cringe a little!)
Maybe that’s why over the years I have become more reserved, because “When in doubt, take the safe option”. But inside I am anything but reserved! The challenge is how to stay in touch with who you are in the midst of managing how you relate and work with others. A healthy self image is obviously a huge boon, but those of us who are still working on that have to do their best to still stay true, at least on the inside, with the real us.
And of course all this vulnerability with others can also give others a chance to stab us in the back (or in the front). So…. we need to know when to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and when not to. But let’s at least allow ourselves to ask that question “Can I reach out, can I open myself up, can I make myself vulnerable, even just for a little while?” No doubt we will learn over time when this is a good idea and when it isn’t, but let’s be prepared to learn. I think our lives and the lives of others will be enriched as well.
And maybe every now and then, just like Peter Sharp danced in the fountain, we will let our hair down, experience freedom, and refresh our own souls.