I. “Dilige et quod vis fac.” (“Love, and do what you will.”) —St. Augustine of Hippo
Every time I have waited to do the thing I really wanted to do because I was worried it would seem weird, look bad, or that I wouldn’t be good at it, I was PLAYING MYSELF. Invariably, I would go on later to do that very thing, as I wanted it helplessly and couldn’t really deny that anymore, or else I would spontaneously atomize into tiny particles of longing and repression. (That seems a tinge more melodramatic than just saying to hellzone with it and dyeing my hair, huh?) Just about every time I’ve catered to and then regretted this brand of apprehension, it has become immediately clear—like, the instant after I do whatever it is that I’ve waffled about—that I could have safely made myself way happier, way earlier, if I stopped worrying whether the people around me would think I had bad taste or was strange for involving myself in something that I loved and/or was otherwise convinced was a rad idea.
The only real rules when it comes to not wrecking your existence entire: You’ve gotta be respectful and kind to others (and aware of the fact that how to do that changes in each individual situation). Forget being “right.” Are you being empathetic and responsible? If you operate under those conditions, you can do basically whatever the hell you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.
Here’s the difference between a decision that someone DISAPPROVES OF and a decision that HURTS SOMEBODY: Let’s say you have always really super-always rabidly oh-so-badly wanted to be a carpenter, but your parents are like, “Wood? That’s an inferior material to steel. We REALLY must insist that you go work as a welder instead, because we gave you your life and now you owe it to us as our indentured gene-puppet.” If you decide that, nah, Mom and Dad, I have some nails to go hammer, and you tell them this kindly in a way that keeps their feelings in mind, you have not done anything “wrong.” Your parents’ belief that you’re better suited to suturing might be IRONCLAD (What the hell kind of pun-premise is this? Whatever, we’re going with it), but the fact of their disagreement has nothing to do with whether your choice is a moral one.
Now: Let’s say you’ve gone ahead and clutched your aspirations firmly, and you are the top woodworker in town. Everybody wants a piece of your…lumber? (Carpenters do not make wood, I understand. But bear with me for the godforsaken sake of this adage, and never ever give me an advice column.) You decide that everyone who likes steel is a fuckface brainless idiot on principle, and that your parents are worthy of derision and contempt because of their difference of opinion. (Even if they did this same thing to you at the start of your career. Being an asshole out of retribution = still the first three words of this sentence.) Being true to thine own selph doesn’t mean imposing your beliefs on others and demonizing them if they disagree, nor does it mean believing you are hermetically correct, nor that you have the MORAL OBLIGATION to thrash the force of your will to direct other people to places they’d rather not go. It just means directing yourself—without driving over other people in the process.
II. “No one can make you feel like a flimsy fraction of an idiot with an acrimonious chump-heart unless you’re the one saying, ‘Here’s pretty much what I’m all about: sucking,’ first.” —Eleanor Roosevelt, verbatim, this is exactly the famous quote
I know how vacuous and hopeful this sounds because I loathed being told to BE MYSELF!! in high school. That imperative usually came from a person who (1) had a “self” that I thought kind of sucked, or at least seemed “easy” to me, like my guidance counselors: Oh, yeah, you’re really fire-hose-drenching me with YOUR relentless geyser of personal iconoclasm, you aphoristic fuckstick—great Dockers, by the way (yes, I was precisely this much of a jerkulux in high school) and/or (b) accordioned their nose in disgust whenever I emitted a tiny gasp of MYSELF!! within 20 yards of them, like my teachers, who also were mad into khaki, but not so much my chosen final-paper topics, even though since WHEN are cephalopods and the abandoned fake-o Disneyland in Nara, Japan and Patricia Highsmith’s obsession with snails not fascinating, you clods?
Also: BE YOURSELF??? Like that’s so very simple????? Like any person on Earth has ever taken this totally redundant blandishment (*McConaughey voice* all you have to do to ‘be yourself’ is keep on breathin’, brah…) as their personal Divine Truth and instantaneously gone on to molt the drab plumage they adapted from their equally dreary surroundings in favor of the dazzling bird-of-paradise bastion of TECHNICOLOR SELFHOOD lying in wait underneath all this time? Gnaw medical waste, you goon of a zero. You are trying to solve me with a sentence that is literally two words long and disregards that “myself” is pretty much the last person I usually want to be. (Back then, at least…fine, and a lot of the time, now. I’m better at staving off that useless feeling, though, because *McConaughey voice* I am confined to this selfsame bod and head for the rest of my tenure as a conscious human, brah…)
So…I hope you are duly convinced that it is with great shame, but even greater conviction, that I come to you with that exact same wheezing plea—b-be…cough, gasp…yourselchhhhh—today! In fact, I am wearing Dockers as I type this to you. (Just kidding. I’m wearing a baseball cap of unknown descent that says TOP GUN—so much pErSoNaLyTy!) The difference is that I intend to back this empty nothing-statement up with actual meat and blood. This will not be to the end of convincing you to stitch yourself a sash reading,“LOOK AT WHAT A UNIQUE SPECIALNESS I AM, AREN’T I SO MAGICALLY DIFFERENT FROM OTHERS,” although that’s true, if a bit grating and self-aggrandizing as a fashion accessory. Instead, I want to raise the idea that when people are forthcoming with the would-be malformations within themselves that they strive to hide most, it abates those sources of shame not only for themselves, but for the people who swim through their proximity as they doing them, whether they know them or not. We all have an actual social responsibility to decorate the world with every bizarro part of ourselves, especially the ones we think are gravely hideous or embarrassing.
Don’t laugh yet. Or do. But please—points to kitten poster on wall next to portrait of my son graduating from his seminar, so proud of all Kevin’s accomplishments—just do like our friend in the tree here and HANG IN THERE with me for a spell, because I’ve got evidence in the form of Grace Jones and the other card-carrying members of my teenage main brain trust, aka the ARS Hall of Dons: Tammy Faye Messner, Richard Feynman, Chris Farley, Sei Shonagon, Patricia Highsmith, Roland Barthes, Tupac…These are just a few of the pulsars that convinced me that, though what I observed as I dragged myself along my life was largely flavorless store-brand dry cereal arranged in the shapes of cars and sidewalks and a school—I was part of a world where real people could pass their bizarre palms over life and make it into an opulent cosmos of poetry, sequined vomit, new sex, and the ultimate wealth of strange love that, in its strangeness, was exactly what love must be, because it certainly wasn’t some yutz telling me that I was, like, so funny when I had been being serious, then applying his Sprite breath to my teeth. The only thing that the ARS Dons had in common:, besides being roommates in my love-corridor (whoa, gross euphemism waiting to happen): their hyperspecific, uncompromised personalities, so unlike the one I wore.
For all my private hagiography of these cats, I could not quite see their dedication to their them-ness as something I could communicate interpersonally, since I acted like a girl-shaped mound of bran. As a kid, I made no bones about being selective i/r/t what I thought was special and cool, but grade school wrung me and middle school hung me out to dry. My classmates and teachers were so critical of one another, and of me. If there’s a hell, it’s seventh grade. I believed I had earned my place there through some kind of antinomian wrongdoing: If, instead of serenely bopping toward the things and people to which I was inherently drawn, I acquiesced to the party lines I saw being towed by my peers, I could transcend my own misery. I apologized, in serialized letters, to friends who told me my hair was ugly, and I started straightening it. I stopped protesting when people used slurs. I wholly cloaked my inclinations, habits, and opinions. Whenever I found I liked something new, it made me queasy: If I had chosen it, it must be wrong—another good-tasting thing that could only make me sicker. Because it was sick, right? I was sick, to disagree with the people around me? That is what I thought, and it drove me from myself.
I tried so hard to cure that nausea with asperity and self-concealment, thinking that if I was cruel enough to myself, or I tried to rearrange my natural thoughts into a wholly different inner and outer presentation, then I could just climb out of the fucked, sad waste management facility that was my brain/life. I smoked a pastoral landscape of weed because my friends did and I thought that would make me interesting in an easily digestible (or bong-rippable) way without my having to commit much to it. This worked… flawlessly!!!!!!!!!!!!fjnmh,rt.;ertMYGODITWASTORTURE. (Yes, marijuana-drug is aces for many when it’s used casually. I did not use it casually. I got high four times a day to blur the structure of my personality to others and myself.
When I stopped smoking pot and expected to keep my same friends, only to find that they stopped calling me, and picking up my calls, now that I didn’t want to throw five on it, I should have followed what I thought about that behavior: Ew, this is the way my “closest friends” have decided to treat me? Maybe I should get new friends. Instead, I started smoking weed again to keep their company, which inflated my anxiety and dread to three times larger than my actual self-size. I only stopped when I moved away for good at 17. I arrived at college determined to finally find my people, and after a few nights of running around with inconsiderate dunderheads just because they were available and also liked easy drinking, I realized I would have to spangle myself with the trappings of who I actually was, and liked, and did—so I did, and I met one of my lifetime’s greatest friends, Lex*, whom I thought was cool from the moment I laid eyes on her: Everyone compared her to a miniature Elaine from Seinfeld, but to me, she seemed noble and self-possessed, like Athena or something, if Athena grew up in southern New Jersey. She told me that when she first saw me at a getting-to-know-you floor meeting, she was skeptical of the similarities between us in a girl-hatey way, based on my outfit and proffered favorite animal—backwards baseball cap, floral scarf, Smiths T-shirt; “squid,” then as now as ever—but came to her senses when her best friend from home, Nicky, caught a chance meeting between us later as I was on my way out to an opening of an artist I liked. When I left, she told me, he said, “That’s who you want to be friends with—she knows what she’s into, and it sounds a lot like what you’re into.” He was right, and after some mutual chasing and friend-advances on both of our parts, I had a best friend for the first time in my life. I inducted MYSELF (and Lex, in the process) into the ARS HOD, and so I wasn’t required to pay $5 admission to my own goddamn friendships! I wasn’t alone anymore, is what I’m saying.
*Not her real name.