When I was a child, I did not like myself much. And while sad, I don’t think this was a wildly unreasonable stance for pre-pubescent Tom to take. An almost irrational love of saturated fats and Skittles had transformed a once promising Irish Catholic athlete of middling height, talent, and ambition into a meaty little marshmallow muncher of unfortunate size and proportions. Sure, I eventually developed a sense of humor to combat my peers’ hurtful jabs with self-deprecating jokes and the occasional well-timed quip. But for years before that, I was simply the fat *quiet* kid. The kind of kid that would not only eat a third cheeseburger for lunch, but shamefully avoid eye contact with anyone while doing so. It was kind of like if the creepy, quiet kid from “The Ring” coped with his mal-attentive mother by eating Happy Meals out of the trash instead of playing with psychic water demons.
Now, coupled with this love of food and the quiet disregard of others was an equally strong passion for reading. Stories in general, really. And my favorite characters were always the same: The sly, quick-witted tricksters who always knew the *exact* right thing to say at the *exact* right time. The sort that could talk circles around the dumb, brooding brutes and leave them standing still and stupid as they made off with the treasure, or the princess, or the Declaration of Independence (looking at you Nick Cage). The kind of clever storyteller that could make something out of nothing and turn the mundane into something fun and extraordinary. And I wanted nothing more than to one day be one of those characters. To be the kind of guy that never had to look stupid in conversation because he didn’t know what to say or how to say it. To be the sort of person that could craftily insert a joke into any discussion, and make up stories and tales that people *really* wanted to listen to. Because when you feel like the whole world is talking past you and you’re not worthy of adding your part to it? I gotta tell ya – it feels pretty lousy.
So that’s the kind of person I tried to be. And with some success, I might add. I can honestly say that I’ve developed an inability to take life seriously that would have surpassed childhood Tom’s wildest dreams. Stories? Well, I can’t claim to be any good at telling them, but I sure will talk your ear off for 90 minutes about a Seagull I saw named Sam who’s trying his damnedest to reunite with his family and save the icebergs. Wit? I can’t confidently say that I’m capable of eloquently turning a phrase or shrewdly swindling unsuspecting Disney villains, but I *have* developed an uncanny knack for incorporating sexual fluids into obnoxiously long insults (My personal favorite is “slovenly semen slurper”). The point being, I tried very hard for a long time to make myself into something that I would feel a bit more proud of….and into someone that has “words rhyming with semen” in his Google search history.
Admittedly, none of this should come as any surprise. In my last “Personality Chameleon” post, I stated that “I am not particularly committed to my own personality”, and that “life gets boring, and your options get severely limited when you’re shoe-strung by those pesky little traits and affectations that make up ‘who you are'”. While a bit tongue in cheek (and clearly overexaggerated), at its core, this post isn’t too far off from reality. At least in how I engage with most aspects of my life. Namely, the less important ones. The ones that make up a disproportionate (and unfortunate) amount of our lives. The ones that don’t exactly make the soul sing or the mind ignite with fire and passion. For example, how I might engage within a corporate office environment (I promise you, the vim I show for redistribution strategy, while worthy of at least an honorary mention at a second-rate awards show, is not fully authentic), or how I might engage in civil, manly discourse on the local sports team with a stranger at a bar (Go sports!).
And it truly is important to note that I only take this tact for the mundane and inconsequential. Because in the end? These displays of malleability within my personality, while expedient, never truly have made me happy. Learning to have a quick wit might have made it easier for a shy, fat kid to talk to strangers, but it sure didn’t make me respect myself more for who I was. Spending an afternoon in the office cubicle talking about “Low hanging fruit” or “Synergies”, while conducive to a well-stocked bank account, has never truly made me feel a profound sense of purpose. They are simply the things you adapt to to get by.
But for those parts of my life that I *do* care deeply about, I (intentionally or otherwise) have always maintained my true, authentic self. First and foremost in this group are my friends. For better or for worse, a curly haired idiot wandered into their lives a few years ago with a dumb smile and glasses askew, and now they’re stuck with me (For-ev-er). And hell, I figure if you’re going to be stuck with a melodramatic corporate drone for all eternity, you’ve at least earned the right to get that business-casual malcontent in his/her fullest and most genuine form. Right?
Yet strangely enough, this also *does* extend into my dating life. While in my previous post I waxed poetic about how I adapt a vegetarian façade when in the midst of a particularly attractive herbivore, the worst I’ve ever really done was pretend to like olives on pizza (sorry, Rachel). And despite my elegant prose regarding shucking corn and listening to Garth Brooks to impress a country girl, or going to Church to woo a Christian Soldier (#MarchingAsToWar), the most I’ve ever really conceded there was *occasionally* wearing a flannel shirt or not calling Jesus “Jeebus” (you’re welcome, Christina).
If anything, my problem is actually much the opposite. I’m *far* too myself from the very beginning. Why even go on a date, if you don’t want to at least touch on the pervasive sense of existential dread that permeates our every waking moment of consciousness? Oh, did you not know I bought and built a stalker blog for my best friend in 2018, and updated it daily for over a year? That’s a shame, here let me quote a few passages for you. Why yes, I *do* enjoy a bowl (or two!) of Lucky Charms for dinner. The fanciful shapes remind me of a childhood forever in my rearview mirror, and the sugar gives me *just* enough energy to feel less like a walking corpse for a few hours.
I think in the end I do this because it means a lot less to be accepted by a stranger at a bar than it does a friend or partner. Even if you don’t particularly like yourself, I suspect deep down everyone wants to be accepted for who they are vs. the false simulacrum that they’ve created for themselves to make the world more bearable. It’s pretty lonely not having anyone actually know who you are, and pretty ungratifying to gain the affection of others through illusory means.
I mention this now because I’m not a fat, quiet kid with an unreasonable hankering for custard and creampuffs anymore. I’m a (fairly) self-respecting, autonomous, and capable adult with a *very reasonable* hankering for custard and creampuffs. But in full candor, it’s been hard lately to remember that. It’s very easy to simply belittle yourself and to try to change who you are and how you present yourself when you’re not feeling great about the world. It’s a cheat code. A hack. It allows you to escape the consequences of your feelings and deflect the things that hurt you to a false identity and version of yourself (effectively the emotional equivalent of “That wasn’t me, it was Patricia”). Being yourself opens you up to being hurt in a way that playing a character doesn’t. And that sucks.
But I like to believe that it also makes all the positive, meaningful things in life that much more meaningful. It makes *you* more meaningful. My dear (funny, intelligent, beautiful, all-around better-person-than-me) friend, Lauren, summed it up nicely when she told me that a genuine person might get hurt more than most, but they’ll also be loved more than most as well.
And as much as I enjoy pretending to like salty demon spheres (olives) and listening to a self-obsessed icon of the world’s most mediocre genre of music (Garth Brooks), I think I’d rather pick the genuine route every time.
That route leads to Lucky Charms.