Social Insecurity

Photomontage: Titled & EntitledThe US has had a Social Security Administration for eight whole decades now, a government agency aimed at assisting the aged, the disabled, and those with limited income capabilities. Highly admirable stuff, that, however imperfectly executed. The fact that many of my generation and younger have had reason to question whether the monies we ourselves have set aside and invested (through this very agency, in hopes of securing our own places if and when we reach the point of need in any of those categories) will still be there waiting for us gives the lie to the amiably well-intentioned name of said organization. But if there were to be an agency with the opposite name, I have a feeling it would be devoted to something a bit different, or at least much broader, than the opposite of supporting the aged, the disabled, and those with limited income capabilities.

If you ask me, insecurity—especially of the social variety—is pretty darned near universal. It strikes at the hearts of the poor and the rich equally, at those with profound physiological barriers to their earning potential and those who make their mind-bogglingly large incomes by being spectacularly physically gifted (here’s looking at you, pro athletes!), at those with limited income capabilities, say, because they are [ahem! Starving] artists and those whose income potential seems utterly unlimited (you know, artists of the bankable-actor type or the rockstar variety and their cohorts). I know from long observation that the seemingly most potent and gifted, powerful and well-established, famous and accomplished, are also among the least socially secure people on the planet. It has a little to do, I’m sure, with the idea that the more one has, the more one has to lose. But it’s really not so logic-based as all that. It’s an inborn, often reinforced, sense that what one does have not only can vanish in the blink of an eye but is highly likely to do so. A belief that if anybody else on earth has any such gifts and privileges and earned honors, then the ones that one has, oneself, are diminished by an equal amount, or just plain eclipsed. The zero-sum game in a terribly emotional, wildly self-destructive form. How pitiful.

What I would like might be to create the Social Insecurity Administration, and let everybody who feels a need to join, or is nominated for the dubious honor by others who know what fears lie in their secret hearts,

Anybody can Dance, Even Those Who Do It Weirdly

Midhun Antony claims anybody can dance. I have always thought of myself as living proof that even if every single other living creature on the planet can do it, there’s still One Who Can’t. It’s not a point of pride with me; just what I think of as an uninspiring factoid.

But he’s right. It’s unfair, despite my belief I’m being honest in claiming to be a fairly awful dancer, to say that I can’t. Even if my goal is to impress anyone, rather than merely to enjoy the activity for itself, or to express joy—surely among the highest and best reasons to dance, really—can I truthfully claim that a bad dancer is no dancer? How many times have I enjoyed, along with my much-better-dancing friends, the vision of an uninhibited exhibition of movement-to-music by a truly unskilled practitioner? The littlest of children, even those not yet able to stand without support, dance and fearlessly. That is the point! It’s not about skill and coordination or style points, or ballroom etiquette, the vast majority of the time; it’s about happiness and commitment.

A little bonus exercise is not to be sniffed at, either, I should be the first to confess.

If I’m truly so self-absorbed as to think that my dancing should be of any interest to anyone in the room but me or—given the right circumstances—any other person I am dancing to please, at the very least I should keep in mind that letting down my guard so others can have a good healthy laugh at my expense would be a tremendous gift. Some of the best moments ever recorded on film are not only those shared by the Nicholas Brothers or Rogers and Astaire, Alvin Ailey or Mikhail Baryshnikov or Judith Jamison, but also the high and low comedic gifts of attempted dance we also remember with intense fondness. Elaine Benes, I salute you! Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze, I curtsey in awe. I fall down while curtseying, of course, but I do admire your work. In fact, I’ll hazard a little wiggle of sheer glee right now, just because you all make me so happy.Digital illo: Nerdy Dancing

We All Wear Our Masks

digital illustration (B&W)It’s so much easier to hide behind convention and other convenient facades than to let our true selves be seen and known. Don’t we almost always prefer that sense of safe anonymity or at least ‘appropriateness’—however tenuous or specious it may be—to taking the chance that in our own skins we might not measure up to the occasion or to the  expectations of others?

It is, of course, a foolish conceit. One can rarely cozen anyone else, let alone oneself, by such a means. No matter how hard I may try to appear in the guise of what I think will qualify me for the In Group or make me richer-thinner-prettier or smarter than I really am, if it’s all show, the mask will like any faulty exterior prove too thin to cover my realities. It has always been so, and yet I am far from alone in continuing these futile attempts. I do believe that constant practice can transform us into a nearer semblance to the disguise, but that can work for ill as well as good.

Probably wiser is to recognize that the urge is age-old; that insecurity and an assumption that others will find me inadequate in my natural state are neither new problems nor absolutely decisive. The masks of the past remain, both in those symbolic and ceremonial concrete forms and in the records of our history books and art, to amuse, bemuse or warn us, if we will pay attention. And a close enough, thoughtful enough reading will remind any of us that no mask covers the truth forever—and yet, all the same, that we as a species continue (however astoundingly) to survive. Perhaps unmasking isn’t entirely as dangerous as any of us have feared.

I spent enough years acting the part of a brave, socially mature person, one who was more comfortable hosting a gathering, letting others see my art and writing, lecturing, teaching and doing so many other things that in truth absolutely terrified me to tearful agony behind the scenes that it turns out I am capable of doing all of those things after all. I still fuss and worry, yes, but nothing like the self-flaying horrors that I used to suffer just to get through what were apparently no-big-deal occurrences for most other people, and now I can experience them with fair equanimity. Funny how, when you’ve spent your whole remembered life in the grip of a belief that every second was one degree away from total disaster and death, any tiny bit less becomes magically huge.

And each of those instances becomes a step toward understanding that I have perhaps begun to grow into my mask of wishful improvement and become more like it underneath. Or better yet, that it never did matter as much as I feared, this different reality behind the convention. Best of all, I find that the more I let people see me as I really am, the more kindly they seem to look on me, and in turn, I begin to think the real me is perhaps pretty likable, respectable. Even lovable. Who knew.

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Unique doesn’t inherently mean Alone.

Struttin’

digital illustrationIt’s especially nice, when I’ve caught myself wallowing in self-denigration and insecurity for a bit, to think on those things that actually, really, truly are pretty darn good about me. It’s no sin to appreciate the gifts we’ve been given, and their relative smallness in comparison to others’, as there are always people for whom we have [possibly unwarranted] adulation as exemplars of all those things we long to be, is irrelevant. Safe to say that every one of those great and mighty high achievers has some hidden insecurity and certainly, all have imperfections. Our inability to see those reflects more on our own worries and wishes than on who anyone else genuinely is.

So I go off looking at the astonishingly skillful artistry of others and am ashamed at how little I’ve accomplished in my artistic life thus far and feel inadequate and cheap, and sulk for a moment or two, and then I need to pick up my tools and get back to work and remember that I do this, to be fair, for the love and joy of doing it, not because I need to impress somebody. And I remind myself that despite my ordinariness, I am in my own way new and improved in comparison to where I started my artistic journey.

The same holds true for looking at others’ writing, cooking, gardening, housekeeping, home decorating, DIY projects, you name it. If there’s anything I do that I wish I were better at doing—and anything worth doing is worth getting better at doing, no?—the reason I have such a wish is that I know I’m far from the best, and I can only know how far I am from the best if there are others leading me there by example. In fairness to my meager position in the relative scheme of things, I need to recognize that most experts spent a tremendous amount of time and energy becoming the avatars that they are, that if I did think I were nearly perfect at anything it would be foolish and delusional and hubristic and, well, tiresome, and that I do improve over time, if not quite at the rate I would fondly hope I could.

This is not a pity party for Poor Little Me, lest you be misled by my maundering start: it’s a self-reminder that I am very fortunate, and yes, a little bit gifted, too. My gifts may not be the kind that were evident from my birth and improved exponentially over a shining, prodigious span of growth and productivity and marvelous output. But incremental growth and modest gifts can be celebrated, too, and since I have no need for fame or (however pleasing I may find the idea of it) wealth, it matters none whether anyone else celebrates them. That they do, and indeed, tell me so, is a kindness and brings the kind of wealth and fame that have a far greater value than the more worldly sort, when I accept them wholeheartedly.

I know I’m not the greatest of or at anything. But I like who and what I am and think I’m on a slow upward incline regarding what I do, and that’s reason enough to hold up my chin and puff out my chest a little and march on forward with a smile on my face and my head held high. I’ll bet you could do it, too, even if you merely do so by letting yourself believe what the people who love and respect you tell you. They don’t love and respect and admire you for no reason at all, and who are you to question your admirers’ integrity! Go ahead, own up to being the new and improved you. Preen a little. You deserve it.

Dizzily Dark Imaginings

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The One Person More Lost than Me

photoMom has taught me a whole lot of things. One of the most useful is how to turn one of my most frustrating shortcomings into a strength.  It’s a skill I’ll still spend the rest of my life polishing, but having been taught the basics, I know what I need to practice, and that is a tremendous boost.

My lifelong shyness and social anxiety rose to a not-at-all-surprising high level when I started college. The small university I attended was hardly an unknown element to me, as my parents and a couple of other relatives, as well as some friends, had attended there and my older sister was already starting her junior year there when I arrived. But being predisposed to fear and intimidation as my responses to all social situations, I was guaranteed to struggle with extra doses of my old hauntings by the terrors of interpersonal experience in the new to me surroundings, with a roommate I met the day we moved in to our shared dormitory space, all new classmates, new teachers and administrators and a neighborhood where I’d never more than visited briefly before.

For the most part, I muddled through just as I’d done since I was old enough to know how to be afraid of new people and situations, and even had, as always, plenty of the enjoyment I was capable of having. I did acquire a number of grand new friends, including my roommate, who turned out to be a fantastic companion and like-minded girl. I took classes that challenged and intrigued me and I dragged up enough courage to participate in some events and extracurricular activities that broadened my scope significantly. I was surrounded in my living quarters in an all-female dorm by a cadre of terrific young women who bolstered my puny sense of self and cheered me on like the best of good neighbors.

But one day, as the first year progressed, I was visiting informally with a handful of those girls and we got into a discussion (as college coeds still often do, from what I’ve seen) about First Impressions. One of the girls, to whom I will be eternally grateful, let it slip that on first meeting me she had thought, and had since learned that others had too, that I was Stuck Up. That’s the simple classification among my tribe of someone who thinks herself superior to others and disdains and dismisses them. I was dumbstruck.

She went on, hastily, to add that on getting to know me she had realized that the reason I often refused invitations, that I didn’t look people in the eye, and that I evaded interactions and conversations instead expressed a defensive retreat into my giant ossified shell of shyness and my fear of all things new and unknown and that, in fact, she and others really enjoyed my company. That was some consolation, but realizing through her honesty that I projected an image far less benign and far more distancing than I guessed, I knew I’d have to somehow wrest my way out of the armor I’d built around myself and at the very least learn to act the part of someone with social skills even if I didn’t have them.

Naturally, I went whimpering off to Mom. And she surprised me by going beyond the sympathetic and consoling mother needed in the conversation. I’d never imagined that this person I’d always known as having not only a mother’s authority but a certain status as both the recognized Favorite Mom among all of my friends over the years and a kind of built-in First Lady of all of the organizations in which she participated, not least of all as the pastor’s wife–that she had another side, one not so entirely different from my own. That she had been deeply intimidated by being expected to play the roles of guide, hostess, chief female church member, community do-gooder and cheerleader, and all of the other philanthropic and social leadership parts inherently assumed by others to be part of her place in the world. And that, when Dad was busy being the speaker, preacher, chairman, boss and whatever his role of the moment happened to be, she was stuck in meetings and receptions and services and classes full of strangers who expected her to carry not only her own weight but that of whatever they thought was required for the occasion.

I almost wilted, thinking of what it must have been like for her.

But then she imparted the piece of wisdom that ‘cracked the case’ for me. I got the MacGuffin: social anxiety and extreme shyness assume that I am the center of the universe. That the rest of the world is watching me and is dependent on my doing or being certain things for its success and happiness. And that I am suffering the most for the cause. She put it in much more tactful terms, I’m quite certain, given that I was a flimsy excuse for an ego, a fragile not yet twenty year old still unable to see my path in everyday life clearly.

I think what she really told me (from which I extrapolated the above) was the incredibly handy ‘trick’ she’d learned for coping with all of these unreasonable social and activist demands. When you arrive, immediately look for the one person in the room more uncomfortable and more out of place than you. Even when you’re absolutely sure it’s not possible, there’s always someone more scared, more intimidated, more inexperienced or at the very least, who thinks that they are. It’s true, by the way; I’ve seen it proven over and over since. Go and gently introduce yourself and ask this person about him- or herself. Make this person the most interesting part of your life while you’re there.

That’s it, really. Suddenly, it’s not my job to be perfect or achieve the goals of the event or even to be interesting or brave; it’s my job to make another scared person feel more welcome and at ease. I don’t have to spend any energy on worrying about how I look to others or whether I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because nobody with an ounce of sense is going to argue that taking care of someone in need isn’t what we’re all supposed to be doing, that recognizing that there’s someone whose need is greater than our own isn’t precisely the most attractive thing we can accomplish, and that a friendly smile isn’t the most fashionable item anyone can wear for any occasion.

I fall down on this effort often enough, still, and do my well practiced imitation of an additional pillar holding up the dimmest corner of the room. I haven’t Saved anyone else from the brink of doom through my heroic attempts to cheer them up for a half hour. I still have impressive dramatic skills in making faux pas and pratfalling my way through the day and then doing my best to make the earth swallow me whole.

But afterward, I remember to quit imagining myself the cynosure of Creation, let go of my need to be correct and impressive and likable and spend my energies on helping someone who doesn’t know Mom’s useful little technique to feel more correct and impressive and likable. I will put on my shiny smile and play the role of somebody better than me and hope that someday, if I practice it hard enough, it will become second nature and I won’t even have to work at it at all. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

If you happen to be headed to yet another office holiday party or first-of-the-year reception any time soon, you can test this theory yourself. Thank my mom. Or, if you happen to subscribe to a certain story that is commemorated on this very night, thank the Person who became most vulnerable of all in order to protect and rescue everybody weaker.

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