Don’t pretend to be normal

Instead of a corsage, it was Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human. I was a freshman going to the prom with a junior named Doug. He was a deep thinker and thought I might be too.

Doug and his parents were from Chicago, which made them exotic in small-town North Carolina. They were also into new age spirituality. Doug learned the art of pranic healing – the cleansing of chakras with crystals – and practiced on me. (I think that my chakras were beyond repair even at the tender age of fourteen.)  When Doug told me that his Chicago-based shaman named Blue thought we were both indigo children, I felt strangely in awe of Doug and his shaman, even as I was fairly certain I could not believe in such things.

Doug never pretended to be other than he was. And, contrary to what you might expect, Doug was very popular in high school – a top athlete, leader of the football team. He was a highly socially competent kid that happened to have interests outside the norm. Because he did not proselytize, apologize or self-promote, his quirky new age whatnot didn’t rub anyone the wrong way.

Doug’s gracious presentation of his idiosyncrasies was the reason I was drawn to him. It was a bravery I envied and wanted to adopt. I often sought out friends who demonstrated this bravery because it was a thing that I lacked.

I have an embarrassing desire to be “normal,” regardless of my surroundings. Since my surroundings constantly change, this means emphasizing and/or embellishing different parts of myself, depending on the context. My parents called me “the chameleon” when I was younger, and it was not necessarily a compliment. (Mom: “Janet, why are you charging a $120 Cole Haan wallet on your nearly maxed out credit card when you are a college student with no real income?” Janet: “A cheap wallet screams middle class!”) I’ve always put tremendous effort into not sticking out, which inevitably resulted in mimicry and flirtation with omission, if not outright fiction.

Doug went on to earn a degree in Comparative Religion from UNC-Chapel Hill. Last time we spoke, he was undergoing shaman training in South Africa after changing his name to Thembi.

A few Sundays ago, Doug popped into my head for the first time in a long time. I was attending a birthday BBQ with acquaintances from college that I had not seen in years. The birthday girl and most of the guests were from the class ahead of mine, and they had just returned from their five-year reunion. While they anticipated the weekend to be dominated by various what-have-you-been-up-to pissing contests, they were surprised to find that such loaded chit-chat was largely absent. Folks were just excited to see one another and content to engage in unspecified small talk.

Of course, the fanatical douche bag self-promoters remained fanatical douche bag self-promoters. But many of those that expended a lot of energy during undergrad projecting an image that was not entirely based in fact – embellishing social status, family wealth, future prospects, romantic intrigue, clout, etc. – have seemingly realized that there is very little value in pretending any longer.

In the last year, I too have found that my proclivity to pretend has evaporated. I no longer function as my own personal publicist, spinning the hint of possible accomplishment into a far grander thing. The life or death necessity to avoid being seen as abnormal is suddenly just gone.

We all know that growing up is about getting more comfortable with yourself and your place in the world, shedding frustrations and self-loathing. (Also, as neuroimaging has demonstrated, brain plasticity goes from 60 to 0 in our mid-to-late-twenties. Somehow your brain knows that if it’s becoming rock hard, then it’s a rock that’s deserving of love and acceptance?)

It is so much easier to tell the truth now. And it’s a massive weight off my shoulders. A weight that I wasn’t even fully conscious that I was carrying around. I think about how much headspace I’ve won back, and I think about Doug who’s had that headspace available to him all along. Perhaps that is why he is able to channel the spiritual more than others. He’s never lost time or energy pretending.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t pretend to be normal

  1. One of my favorite countercultural slogans of all time comes from the Diggers, an anarchist theater troupe active in SF in the 60s. It’s “be the hero of your own life.” Sounds like Thembi gets that shit.

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