Big Words

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Someone, along the way, told me to believe in fear. This someone is not specific, for this someone resides in many places. This someone shape-shifts, for they can speak as the voice within, as the voice of “society,” even as the voice of people we trust. Someone told me to believe that fear is the most valid emotion, the most powerful, the one that should dictate my actions. Someone told me to believe that if I was scared, that it meant something. That the fear was what should drive me. The fear of failure, the fear of never being good enough, the fear of the unknown. Someone told me that these fears lead you to do and be better. To achieve success, to accomplish achievements, to find a place in this world. The fear of not fitting in, the fear of being different. Someone told me that if I listened to these fears, they would steer me true. Fear would enable me to find a way to be “like everyone else.” To fit in was better than standing out, to be unthreatening would make me likable. To be diminutive would make me someone people wanted to be around. To curb my love of words and use “smaller” ones would make me fit in with my peers.

When I was in middle school, a girl told me that I sounded stuck-up because I used “big words.” I was a voracious reader then, as I am now, and I unconsciously picked up words that I loved and used them without giving it much thought. These words just became part of my vocabulary as I discovered them, effortlessly forming my language. I can’t remember what words I said to offend this girl in middle school, but I remember that I immediately began to censor myself because of what she said. I had a fear of not fitting in; I already didn’t fit in with most of the other kids at school. I was a twin, half-black, without a father, being raised by a single white mom. My sister and I weren’t well-off like some of our classmates. We received brown-bagged “hot lunches” from the school’s meal program and often wore homemade or used clothes. This girl told me that I stood out in yet another way, and negatively, because of my love of words. Instead of remaining steadfast, instead of allowing myself to behave naturally and instinctively, I shut off my instincts. I became all too aware of what I was saying, how I was saying it, and to whom.

I didn’t realize that this self-censorship had continued into my adult life until earlier this year, when one of the cooks at the restaurant where I work was surprised to find out that I was an English major and about to graduate.

“You’re an English major?” he had asked doubtfully, raising his eyebrows. “Of course I am, what do you mean?” I had replied, offended. He said something along the lines of, “You don’t act like it.” (!) “Are you saying you think I’m stupid?” I had asked incredulously. His reply was, “I never said that you were stupid. But maybe you act like you are sometimes.” I was livid with his perception of me, but why had he struck such a chord? If I didn’t think what he said was true, why was I so offended? Later that night, I took a moment to take inventory of what he had said and of my own behavior, something I do a lot of now that I don’t drink anymore. In the past, I would have outwardly written his comment off and then inwardly rebuked myself. Then probably gone out after work and gotten drunk, destroying the opportunity for self-reflection by escaping. But now I don’t have this option of “dealing.” Now, the only option I have is to listen, assess, and come out the other side with more insight than I had before.

I found that, without even realizing it, I had continued my middle school practice of “dumbing” myself down around others in order to “fit in,” to not make waves, to fly under the radar. I realized that the only times I let my authentic way of speaking issue forth was in one of my English classes, or when I was speaking to my family, or of course, as always, through my writing. Though middle school was long over, the frantic desire to fit in waning through the years, I had along the way become accustomed to altering my speech so as not to draw attention to myself.

In my college courses it was different; I was surrounded by fellow English majors who used bigger words than I did, often to show off, so I didn’t feel strange speaking from the heart. I was also usually swept up in the learning material, the poem or essay, and did not really know what I was going to say until it tumbled out of my mouth with no time to self-edit. I thrived in college under the lesson plans that highlighted my passions and strengths of reading and writing. I didn’t feel out-of-place, but I also did not feel like I had to “fit in.” I just was. At work or elsewhere I was typically not immersed in discussions of literature or truth with a capital T, and that was fine with me. It would be exhausting to expound on virtue and the nature of evil all day long. Admittedly, it was often pleasurable to shut off the overactive analytical parts of my brain and just talk about nothing. Life doesn’t have to be so serious all the time! But can there not be a middle ground? Can there not be a free and easy way of just speaking your mind, your truth, your heart?

Recently I finished reading The Road to Character, by David Brooks, a rumination on what it means to be human, which made me think more about the difficulty we as human beings can have when attempting to speak our truths. We always seem to forget our true nature, our capacity for greatness. We become distracted or immobilized by fear, pain, doubt, distrust. Yes, we are flawed, but we are also capable of so many virtues: compassion, integrity, generosity, love. By examining several flawed yet great historical figures, Brooks illuminates the possibility for personal growth, which can lead to the cultivation of a world we wish to see and be a part of. What we choose to do when faced with opposition, self-destruction or judgment, is what makes us great. But what does this have to do with my learned aversion of speaking from the heart? When I read this passage it struck me:

“To be healed is to be broken open. The proper course is outward. C. S. Lewis observed that if you enter a party consciously trying to make a good impression, you probably won’t end up making one. That happens only when you are thinking about the other people in the room.”

The cook at my work actually aided me on my newfound quest to heal myself. He did this by momentarily breaking me open, causing me to assess why someone would think that I “played dumb.” I don’t mean to say that we should always worry about what other people think, as my middle school self did. But I do think that when someone offers up a perception of us that we don’t like, we can learn from it. We can learn that we believe in ourselves so greatly that we know they are totally off the mark, that they are rude or ignorant, etcetera. Or we can learn that perhaps they have something valuable to offer us.

My coworker gave me a gift when he was surprised that I was an English major about to graduate with honors. He showed me, without him knowing it, that the fear someone had told me to believe in had insidiously permeated my life beyond middle school. The fear of failure, of not being liked, of not fitting in, was still at the back of my mind, ingrained in my speech patterns. When he said that perhaps I played dumb, he allowed me to look within and find that I was in fact, to a certain degree, dimming my light. The light that dwells within each of us, that calls us to live true and free and wild, the light that emanates from our calling, our true nature, our gifts.

What I know now is this: I cannot and should not alter my voice in an attempt to be non-threatening, to be likable. Of course I want to be approachable and easy to relate to, but the only way I can be those things is if I am honest, authentic, myself. I cannot be relatable or someone people wish to be around if I am not acting and speaking truthfully. You will not hear me saying “big” words for the hell of it, but you will hear me saying whatever it is that is truthful and real to me at the present moment. I will speak thoughtfully, for I wish to extend compassion and empathy to those around me, but I will not speak fearfully. You will no longer hear me speaking with trepidation or from a place of fear. Someone told me along the way to believe in fear. I believed them for a very long time. But now, I can see that they were wrong.

I wish you a wild, free life.

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