Saturday, 30 September 2017

Vulnerability and Forthrightness Are for Kids

I'm watching HarmonTown, alone, on my weekend.  And I'm thinking about what it's like to not look to be in terribly great shape, to have facial hair, to be middle-aged, and to have clearly failed to build a family to grow old with.  HarmonTown is about Dan Harmon, one of the misfit nerds who created shows like Community and Rick and Morty, which shows entertain and touch us similarly-spirited people on a deeper level than we can quite explain. We are filled with utter delight when Harmon, or Kevin Smith, or someone like that, depicts or talks about something that's an important part of our lives, but that previously hadn't really existed, as far as TVtonia and MovieLand were concerned.

I can watch documentaries like this one, and I can pretend to be outside of it.  I can "diagnose" or profile the guys in them: fat, smart, sensitive guys, who are still close with their mothers, who love animals, who tend to have messy/long hair and beards, who love fantasy and worlds of imagination and a mix of cerebral humour with potty jokes. Sometimes trying to get tough with tattoos and piercings, but still looking baby soft.  Man-children.  Nerds. Trekkers. Middle-aged men who collect toys and games from their childhoods, which childhoods they claim were pretty unhappy, but for those things they're collecting. Whatever.  Mostly lonely people who are part of our culture's ever-expanding vista of solitude and social alienation leading up to lonely death.

But I'm watching me, really.  And a whole lot of people I know.

There's a real sense in all of it of feeling like one has failed to grow up.  Hasn't managed to adult.  (Also... feeling like growing up would really suck.) Because (Biff!  Pam!  Pow!) comic books may have "grown up" enough to really make an impressive annual salary, but many of us who used to read them haven't.

And why would we?  Is there any reason other than "I have kids" to stop living like them?  Kids imagine.  They aren't held responsible to make a real home, or a real life.  They can make up elaborate fantasy worlds together and play in them.  They can argue for hours about which house they'd be in at Hogwarts, or what race they'd be in Middle-earth.  If they have special allergies, conditions, syndromes or needs, they just get more and more attention and stuff.  They've got no one to fool, really.  So they generally tell you straight up what they're thinking and feeling, without being afraid you will judge them.

Grown up people aren't like that. They don't share like that.  They can't afford to be vulnerable like that.  They need to maintain the illusion of adulthood.  Unlike some of us, they were no doubt raised that the "white lie" is absolutely essential to getting by in society. 

So, if you do share vulnerability, or tell your real feelings, people tend to say it's so brave. But really, they're thinking it's crazy.  A bad move.  Because it's a Really Bad Idea to be vulnerable. You have a persona to maintain.  Be vulnerable and open, let the mask slip and get seen for more of who you really are, and you might wreck it all. (this is not taking into account those not-really-being-human folks who aren't aware of having anything at all under that mask they paint daily. Because what can be said about them?)  Many adults are so adult they never let even themselves see a clear glimpse of what's going on behind their personas/roles.

For some of us though, sharing and being vulnerable isn't risking anything much.  Because we have conclusively failed to fool anyone with any kind of adult, successful, strong, competent, respectable, unbothered, content, relationship-worthy persona to begin with. 

In fact, we failed so badly at making one, that others around us make charity loaner personas for us to wear if we're going to be meeting their real friends.  Roles they hand to us at the door for us to put on, which personas they tossed together because we clearly need one. Personas that include the idea that we need to be "explained."  That we Won't Ever Get It.  That we Won't Change.  Personas that do the very opposite of what theirs do for them. Personas that tell everyone "He's not fine just the way he is, but tell him he's great, ok?"  Personas they hand us that it would be an utter delight to wreck utterly.

"This is Tom.  He's very negative, but he's just being so very funny. We just laugh. He doesn't mean any harm. He's single, but he won't date my fat cousin even though he's fat himself. He has a speech impediment, so don't comment on what accent you think he has."   "This is Bob.  He's a computer guy. Builds computers in his basement and all of his friends are computers.  And he loves spicy food. Like, to an unhealthy degree.  I hope he doesn't say anything sexist. He doesn't drink coffee or tea. Likely on prozac or something like that."   "This is Tim.  He's kind of autistic?  Like, not literally, but kind of... you know.  And we don't think he's gay, but he hasn't dated anyone since we've known him. And he loves those movies with swords and magic, but doesn't watch sports. Like, ever. So he won't really talk about hockey or football or anything in a normal way."  Apparently we need disclaimers.  "The following interaction may include mature conversations that get real and go beyond the niceties of small talk.  Viewer discretion is advised."

Mostly they get us very, very wrong, and mostly it really doesn't matter to them.  People just need to feel like they've got a handle on us.  "Guy who eats only tacos and has three cats.  Got it."  Even if that was you for one summer at age 15, and it was part of a contest, and your one cat died five years ago.

The mysterious thing is that anyone who looks at you and talks to you for about two minutes can see pretty much everything important about you.  It's not like you're mysterious or hard to figure out. But it's like they are still having trouble believing who you are.  Because you aren't quite like them, in small ways. So you're confusing to them.  You've got to be something other than how you come off, don't you? Because surely no one is actually how they come off? Just...

But maybe you don't know to feel the shame or try to hide anything about what you are. You don't know how to "get along," or "play the game" or "work the angles" or "put your best foot forward."  You put whichever foot is next forward.  Left after right.  In whatever shoes you happened to put on.  Maybe you knowingly and unknowingly commit any number of social faux pas, and it's not really worth it to you to bother with any of it. It's not like "playing the game" is going to make you win it in any appreciable sense.  It's not like you're a courtier in the palace of Louis XIV of France.  So you don't bother with a persona nearly as much as everyone else.  Don't have a corner of your brain that's working all day long, automatically helping you total up things that make you look good or win points with others.  So they treat you like someone without a face who therefore needs a mask handed to him at the door.

They're different.  They fake smiles, and cultivate a cute little vocabulary of evasions, non-answers and readily deniable, only half-said things. They know how to hint at their feelings and thoughts without committing to them in any way that one might be able to build on in future conversations.  Because they've got too much built to risk their own personas through being known more fully.  To let the personality past the PR men.  What would happen if people saw through their personas to the rest of them?  They might stand out.  Be harder to integrate into social events.  What pass for their friends right now might start forgetting to invite them to things. It might just be easier for everyone that way.

Well, for many of us, we don't have all that stuff to lose.  We look up the social hierarchy to those just above us, who have families and lovely homes and cottages and back yards, and who have occasionally invited us to them to do things, instead of just to bars, and often we know that they won't be continuing to include us.  Why?  Mostly because, in a hierarchy like that, if you even slightly piss off any one person who is higher up than you are (especially if they are part of both "A Couple," and also "A Family Whose Kids Play With Our Kids") you drop out of the running.  We can't help wishing we could fit, but we can't and won't change anything to try to fit.  We're pretty sure there's no use in thinking about it.

Family gets prioritized over friendship.  Every time.  (Or you lose your family.)  So, even if you have forged a number of strong friendships in your 20s, you can very rapidly lose those once your friends have families that then "outrank" you. And if any of your closest friends start living with someone who'd prefer you don't come around too much, perhaps having her own friends she'd rather have around, you've not going to be coming around much anymore.  That's it for you. They've graduated. You haven't.

(Of course you can always hope they'll break up and then you'll be persona mucho grata again, but that doesn't always work out either.)

We singletons also look "across" the social hierarchy to people who are managing to get by while being a lot like us, but who also seem to have some kind of group.  And these things are precious to us.  Often, we either can't really get/fit into these bands, clubs, teams, clubs and relationships to begin with ("Thanks for auditioning. We'll call you.")  Or these groups kind of fall apart due to internal stressors. We have to really watch we don't tear our little islands of being-with-other-people apart over petty stuff.  ("petty" is from the French word "petit(e)" for "small/unimportant.") 

And we look down the social hierarchy to those just below us who are un(der)employed and perhaps still living with their parents, or on social assistance, and who definitely have no kids or connections either.  And we hang out with them.  And when they meet our friends?  We're tempted to "explain" them.  After all, they're single. And have no jobs.  So we try.

And then we realize we're just as bad as everyone else at playing the game.  At climbing.  There are just different weight classes of playing the game.  And some of us are middle-weights trying to move up and lacking what it takes.

"Thanks for your... most interesting audition!  We'll call you!"