“They were all staring at me, like they expected something from me, you know?” I said. “It just made me uncomfortable.”
“Mary! Life is uncomfortable,” Wendi said, rolling her eyes as she remained focused on the dark streets ahead of us. “You have to get used to it or you’re going to live your life trying to make people comfortable. I don’t care what people say about me because they don’t have to live as me. You gotta own who you are and keep it moving.” (p. 117)
The first time I realized that my defining characteristic was being a social chameleon, I was in the second grade. We were lining up on the playground, girls on one end of the yard and boys on the other, and I asked my best friend at the time if we were going to be partners for our field trip. She was angry with me for some transgression I no longer remember, and she told me that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me – not because of whatever it was I’d done, but because instead of standing up for myself, I’d sold myself out and lied to try to regain her favor.
Decades later, the bitterness of that truth remains with me – that as a child, I cared more about blending in and avoiding uncomfortable confrontation than I did about doing the right thing. I suspect it still stings because I have so many more memories to back up that first one. I’ve never felt secure wielding my own perspective like a blade against the opposition. Instead, I extend the best and messiest parts of myself only to the people who know me best and remain an easygoing, adaptable stand-in to acquaintances and colleagues. When I read a book like this though, the way I choose to live fills me with a sense of shame and regret. Mock’s acceptance of her own truth in the face of cultural strictures and intolerance reminds me of what an easy life I’ve had, of how fortunate I am to make choices every day that deny some parts of myself while retaining the privilege of being viewed by others the way I want to be.
I compartmentalize because it’s easier to deny certain aspects of my life than it is to explain them at the risk of censure and confrontation. The woman Mock was at thirteen, struggling against insane odds and yet proud and certain of who she needed to be, serves as a reminder of my own laziness of self. I was in college before I felt I needed to take time to examine who I was or what I needed to do to become the person I want to be, and even to this day, I only speak up for myself or for those who need an ally about half the time. This is not an easy thing for me to admit. That failure to use my voice to fight for compassionate acceptance of all people is a flaw that I consider to be unforgivable. I very deeply root myself in the belief that to say nothing is not only to tacitly accept violence and cruelty as acceptable, but to be complicit in their propagation.
It’s probably not surprising, then, that the idea that affected me most deeply when I was reading this book was the unflappable love that surrounded Mock on her journey. Her family was not perfect. They weren’t always able to give her everything she needed, but the message she received over and over, regardless of circumstances, was that she was loved. It’s an idea I cling to when I fail to be proudly myself – that I don’t have to meet the expectations of anyone, even myself, to be deserving of that kind of love.
As I look back , what impresses me about my family is their openness. They patiently let me lead the way and kept any confusion or worry to themselves during a fragile period in my self-discovery. I recognize this as one of the biggest gifts they gave me. On some level, I knew they were afraid for me, afraid that I would be teased and taunted. Instead of trying to change me, they gave me love, letting me know that I was accepted. I could stop pretending and drop the mask. My family fortified my self-esteem, which I counted on as I embarked on openly expressing my rapidly evolving self. (pp. 108-109)
For more about Janet Mock, go here.