A Most Unpleasant Man, pt. 2: I’m Sorry for Denying My Friends
Last week I penned a combination New Years resolution/rest-of-my-life resolution reflecting on what I let become of myself during the last decade of my life, and in it I promised that no longer would I be what E once termed, in his fantastic song, “a most unpleasant man.” That post, though, only addressed part of the story.
Throughout my life I have always been a man of many and diverse interests. At any given moment I might have been a marketing guy, a scholar, an educator, a blogger/editor/publisher, a photographer, a poet, an athlete, a Theta Chi, a competitive debater, a paintballer, a tuba player in the marching band, a rabid Chelsea FC supporter, an actor, a gamer, a lyricist composing songs with an industrial band (I didn’t say “goth” there, but I can easily wander into a club and enjoy a hardcore goth concert and not look any more out of place than I do everywhere else), and probably some other things, as well. Some of these things go together. A marketing director who plays soccer? Sure, that makes perfect sense. A PhD who’s both scholar and teacher, as well as poet? Of course. Photographer goes with most anything, so that’s good.
But other pieces of the puzzle are trickier. No matter how good you are (or think you are), poetry isn’t something you want to bring up in an interview for a PR position, nor is it something you should dwell on at happy hour with your colleagues. They’ll smile and play along and some may genuinely like poetry and respect this side of you, but when those charged with hiring and promoting sit down to contemplate who might best fill the chair of the director who just resigned, they’re going to be keenly aware of “cultural fit.” A lot of lip service has probably been paid to the importance of “creativity” and “thinking outside the box,” but when push comes to shove these are usually apparatchiks who have not gotten where they are by taking chances with people who might be a bit weird. In the kingdom of convention, the unconventional rarely rise to positions of great wealth and power.
I mention all this because I, like you, have bills to pay, and throughout most of my adult like this has meant I relied on the opinions of conventional people. So – again, like a lot of you – I have crafted a mask and set off to work where I played a part. Career Sam® and Real Sam®, well, there are significant differences between them.
Now, you might be thinking – if you’re that diverse, then you should be at home in just about any crowd. You’re a jock when among jocks, a poet when among poets, etc., and people focus on the part of you they identify with, right? But no, the opposite is what happens. I have been openly ridiculed by athletic teammates for my academics. In certain cultures, “brainiac” is an insult that’s just shy of “socialist” and I have been that guy on that team.
Perhaps surprisingly, the opposite has happened. While getting my PhD, I was once told that my athletic activities (I played hoops, soccer and baseball throughout my doc student years) were viewed with some … disapproval. They lived the “life of the mind.” I played ball. Perhaps I wasn’t one of them.
If the conversation turned to religion I was really in trouble, and of course, gamer doesn’t fit with anything.
The upshot of all this is that through the years I became more and more aware of how I was perceived and how those perceptions could be, and perhaps were, used against me in my attempts to pay the bills. As this awareness grew, I became more rigorous about compartmentalizing my relationships. I had good friends in various camps who not only didn’t know each other, they didn’t know each other existed. I was very careful in making sure that they never met. If they did somehow meet, I’d exercise all my communication and diplomacy skills in making sure that the conversation never turned to the question of how we knew each other.
But lately… I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have reached some conclusions that are pertinent to the conduct of whatever life I have left ahead of me.
First, if you consider what I have written above carefully, you may well decide that I haven’t been a terribly authentic person. That’s a fair observation. I have, in fact, devoted a lot of energy to obscuring who and what I really am. Even if you can’t exactly pinpoint what’s wrong, I think there’s a place in the lizard brain that can smell inauthenticity. No matter how well you act, how fluently you speak the lingo, how immaculately you dress for the part, how thoroughly you inhabit the role, you’re still acting. It’s still a facade, and you’re still not quite right.
Second, how satisfying can it possibly be leading this kind of life? For years and years, people have been getting e-mail from me with this quote appended at the end:
You may have success in life, but then just think of it – what kind of life was it? What good was it – you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.
This is from Joseph Campbell, and it occurs in the part of The Power of Myth where he’s discussing the importance of leading an authentic life. I have set this out as a guiding principle, and it feels like not a day has passed where I haven’t betrayed that promise to myself. My life has been many things, but it has not been authentic. Looking back, what wold I say to Campbell were he standing in front of me right now?
Third, and more pragmatically, how has it worked out for me? I have traded authenticity, the pursuit of what I loved, all that, I have traded it for success in my career and financial solvency. Except … except I don’t really have any of that these days. I’m happier in who I am than I have been in years, but I’m being paid half what I’m worth and I can’t see how I get from where I am to where I need to be. Somehow or another the decision to lead my life this way has ushered me to the worst of both worlds. And we won’t even get into the personal life, but suffice it to say I’m a shining example of success on that front to precisely nobody.
In sum, I have sold myself out, and for what?
Finally, here’s the part that bothers me the most. I can’t help being aware of the fact that some of my friends – some of my dearest, most trusted, most cherished friends – may have had occasion to think I was ashamed of them. And why wouldn’t they? If my professional friends, for instance, were to learn about the real me and some of the weirdness I enjoy, that may well hurt my career prospects. So I find myself riffling back through the moments of the past 30 years and wondering – who did I hurt by denying the truth about who I was, who they were, what they meant to me?
This is a horrible thing to contemplate, but I have no choice.
I’ll always be conscious of how being myself affects career prospects, but it’s high time I brought the reality of those prospects into the equation. It’s one thing to hunt birds in a country field and another entirely to hunt unicorns in the enchanted forest. At the minimum, I owe it to myself to only compromise over things that actually exist, huh? 🙂
Beyond all that, the days of compartmentalizing relationships and hiding who I am, those are over. If you’re suspicious of former poets, that’s your problem. If you think that brainiacs are pussies, I’d advise you to keep it to yourself. If you live the life of the mind and think that someone enjoying physical pursuits somehow means they’re not sufficiently intellectual, by all means let’s debate that proposition. In front of an audience. If you think us gamers are weird, then don’t take up gaming. But as you make that decision, understand that many of the best human beings I have ever met are gamers, and throughout my life these have often been the people I could count on no matter what.
These people are all my friends, and if knowing these things about me makes you draw away, that says more about you than it does me, or them.
If you have ever felt that I was ashamed of you, if you have ever felt that I treated you poorly in an attempt to hide the nature of our relationship, I want to apologize – completely, utterly, without reservation. I hope it’s clear from what I have written here that the issue was never you, but me and the flawed way I was trying to live my life. Still, “it’s not you, it’s me” is lame, and the fact that you didn’t understand what I thought I was trying to do isn’t on you, it’s on me.
If you see yourself in here and want to talk, please let me know. This is moment for us to clear the air and for me to make amends.