"We're not the same personality with everyone. We adjust our self to each person we meet, each situation we're in. We have a flexible self. In fact, inflexibility of self--fixations, compulsions--we regard as unhealthy. Just as being able to focus hard, but also switch attention has aided our chances of survival, not having to be exactly the same self with everyone makes us more successful socially. Does that feel false? Not true to yourself? Only if you believe in a rigid self that's uniformly on view. If you accept that self is a plural noun, more like a repertoire than a statue, then featuring one side more with one friend or associate than another won't seem dishonest."
~~Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain
One night during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I had three friends over to stay the night. This would be an unremarkable thing for most high school girls, but in my case, it was an occurrence so rare that to my recollection, this was the only time it happened during my entire high school career.
Due to a combination of borderline pathological shyness and moving around every couple of years, along with my deep interest in solitary pursuits like reading and writing, I was never really part of a larger group of friends. When I hung out with anyone at all, it was usually with one friend at a time and the few close friends that I did have knew each other barely, if at all.
This night not only brought together two New Hampshire friends who likely wouldn't have said hello to one another in the halls at school, but also a Pennsylvania friend who was on a two-week visit, whom neither of the other two had ever met. At this great distance, it is hard for me to imagine what the hell I was thinking bringing the three of them--with little more than me in common--together in such a small space.
Somehow we managed. We drove around singing loudly to the radio in Pasta's1 car and when, in the middle of a Huey Lewis and The News song, my sarcastic friend June said, "What is this, the Benny Goodman quartet?" I responded, "It would be if you would shut up and sing--otherwise, we're just a trio."
Later, the Pennsylvania friend and I somehow discovered that neither of the New Hampshire girls had ever tasted that German delicacy sauerkraut2 and we made a late night foray to Shaw's in Concord to grab a can. At the very least, sauerkraut should come from bags and be cooked in the oven all day long. This sauerkraut was plopped out of a can and simmered on the stove while we played cards nearby. Though I repeatedly warned the New Hampshire girls that the spoonfuls they wrinkled their noses up at were not really representative of the sauerkraut experience, I'm sure that first taste scared them off forever.
The morning after that night, I remember thinking how each of these friends appealed to a different side of my own personality. June was my intellectual, acerbic side; Pasta my juvenile, goofy side; and MommaCW my more mature, thoughtful side. I don't know that I had given much thought before then to how I tended to compartmentalize my friendships--and therefore little bits of myself, but ever since it's been one of those themes that my brain picks up from time to time.
It's like the six blind men and the elephant deal--how many of my friends would it take to paint a complete picture of who I am? Would anyone fully agree with anyone else? Is it ever possible to get to the whole truth of someone's self with only bits and pieces to go on?
The holidays--with all those gatherings of family and friends, who would likely not be in the same room otherwise--have a tendency to stir up this inner debate like little else.
I tend to think of myself, and I think many of us do, as being fairly straightforward and on the surface about most things, but there is no doubt that I manage--both consciously and subconsciously--the information I put out there. Just for two very obvious examples, I tend to tread lightly around the subjects of politics and religion, despite pretty strong opinions on both, unless I'm certain-ish I'm in sympathetic company. If I am asked a direct question on either subject, I will wiggle and hedge if I think I can get away with it--but I will not lie outright. I have become adept at noncommittal responses and subtle changes of subject, but if I am backed into the corner of having to share a personal feeling that I feel may offend or hurt someone, I try to do so as kindly as possible, always acknowledging their right to a different opinion.
Does this mean I am being "fake" or "false" with people? Or does it merely mean that no matter how strong my opinion is, I don't feel it's more important than a given person's friendship?
Of course, not all issues are as "life and death" as politics and religion. In certain relationships, we bond over a shared interest that might seem at odds with an interest I share with another person. Would I have talked about my deep (and embarrassingly enduring) love of CBS soap operas with the occasionally intellectually snobby women in my book group? Or would I have talked about the finer points of the symbolism in Cold Mountain with Cranky Boss Lady, whose reading tastes tended toward paperback suspense novels with recurring characters?
No and no. Does that mean that one or the other of these passions of mine--books and shallow TV programming--is somehow more representative of who I am than the other? And does talking about only one of those passions with someone make me "fake" or "false?" Is there any way to share every bit of ourselves with any one person in our lives? Would we if we could? Should we if we could?
I don't have any answers this year, but the questions just keep getting more and more interesting.
1. Three of the nicknames used here have been used previously on the blog for these fine ladies. The fourth--June--referred to herself as "That Cleaver Tramp" when she commented on the blog. We took to calling one another "June Cleaver" in our early days of stay-at-home motherhood and it's kind of stuck. I am happy to say that all three of those high school friends are still in my life in some capacity or other.
2. One of the many dangers of having a mind like a lint trap is that I have zero control over what gets stuck in there or when some fluffy bit might fly loose. In the case of sauerkraut, I rarely see, hear, or say the word without my brain kicking out the punchline of a naughty joke from the fourth grade: "Sauerkraut, sauerkraut, sauerkraut, two with wieners and one without." And that almost never fails to remind me of Son-One bringing home this doozy, also from fourth grade: "What do a Coke machine and Monica Lewinsky have in common?" ANSWER: They both say "insert bill."