2a : intentionally untrue
I am in the process of reading an exceptionally good book right now. As with most good non-fiction books, I am taking it slowly. Not because the writing is dense nor difficult, but because there is so much truth there for my soul to soak up. I need to read it slowly and give each truth time to settle down into my soul before moving on. The book is When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd and it recounts the author's own spiritual crisis and the process of active waiting she embraced during this time. As she attempts to discover who she really is, Monk Kidd investigates and names her false selves:
...I began a process of "naming" my false selves, a process that spanned many weeks of looking within and reflecting on my life. By naming the inner patterns that imprison us, we come to know them more fully and obtain a certain power over them.
Finding and naming our false selves enables us to answer questions like: If all of my roles were taken away, who would I be? If not wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, who am I? What are the masks I wear and who do I don them for?
My bookmark has been sitting on the precipice of the section Naming False Selves for days. Not because I don't want to read more, but because I think I need to at least make an attempt to see my own constructs before reading Monk Kidd's. So as I took a very brisk walk yesterday in colder than expected weather, I contemplated what masks I've worn to get through my life to this point.
The first one that popped to mind was valedictorian. If you've only known me for the last five years, I'm not sure whether it would be surprising to know I was valedictorian of my high school class. I'd like to think you would be surprised - not because you'd think I'm not smart enough to have been so, but because you might see that I am not a person given to competition nor am I particularly achievement oriented. As I've come to know myself better, I've realized that I don't like competition because competing divides people whereas I long for unity. My healthier adult self doesn't long to be better than or smarter than other people. I don't pursue things in order to stand out, but because they interest me or help me grow as a person.
I wore the mask of valedictorian because it was expected of me, even demanded of me. Without pressure would I have been first in my class? I think it's unlikely. I think I still would have had good grades and done well on standardized tests, but I might have been able to relax a bit and enjoy school rather than seeing it as a place where academic performance was of the utmost importance.
Welcome to my college years. If I felt pressure to be perfect in high school, that fell away the first semester of my freshman year. I brought home three B's and a C that semester and felt no shame about it. What I felt instead was a decided case of not-belonging, which persisted right through graduation. Some of this was borne of being a middle class scholarship girl in the midst of wealthy private school born and bred peers. Some of it was simply my discomfort in my own skin. For most of my time at Vanderbilt, I felt like everyone there had been cut out with the same cookie cutter except me.
I think this is a mask that still appears regularly in my repertoire. When I'm wearing the misfit mask, I struggle with a desire to fit in that collides with a desire to be seen. Because if I'm really fitting in and blending in, I'm not being seen for who I am.
Hopefully many of you have never seen this incarnation of me. In the post-valedictorian, post-misfit years, the bitch was how I coped with working full time, excelling at that work and never feeling very fulfilled by it. I wanted to understand my work, do it with excellence and help my clients and co-workers. I felt such pressure to perform and my employer's solution to any complaint I voiced was to throw money at me. This was not particularly effective.
So I set aside my feelings and hardened myself. It worked fairly well and in some ways it looked a lot like the valedictorian mask, only with harder lines. I learned a lot from a very demanding boss, I honed computer skills that still serve me well years later and I compartmentalized my self to be who they needed me to be. This was not particularly effective, either.
Then came the evangelical years, when I wanted desperately to respond to God's voice and to be accepted by the women in my church as one of them. I can still remember the hurt of a group leader who strongly disliked me. In my desire to conform and be accepted, I couldn't tell whether she simply didn't like me or God didn't, either. Then there were the theological collisions. I spent years attempting to reconcile the church's belief in the inerrancy of scripture with my own heart and mind's objections that you can't take the portions of scripture on women literally, but ascribe passages on slavery to being from a different historical context. To conform, I tried to hold back the parts of me that didn't fit my church's image of who women should be.
That was working reasonably well until I gave birth to three diverse, strong girls. If I could accept the shame thrown upon my shoulders week after week, I could not saddle my daughters with it. After seeing one daughter labeled as not enough one too many times, the mask of conformity shattered and I let go of the myth that there was only one right path to God.
I'm sure there are other masks in my closet, but I think identifying these four gives me enough insight into myself to move forward with reading about Sue Monk Kidd's false selves. As I look at these Shannons that used to be, I feel more frustration and shame than compassion. But I want to be compassionate to these selves that shielded the real and fragile me from the world. Because they weren't constructed as intentionally untrue. Instead, they simply took one aspect of my personality and magnified it past the point of being genuine.
What I want for the next decade of my life is to be the things required of me as wife, mother, daughter and friend, but hold tight to a sense of who I truly am, separate from what I do. May I have compassion on my many selves, both when I fail and when I succeed in seeing the real me.