Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Thine Own Selves Be True...

"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."

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."


  1. Holy cow Masked Mom - you have an amazing brain! I was fascinated reading this post - I have many facets to my personality and certain people bring out different characteristics. I think I'm pretty genuine, but realize that with a few certain people it is very hard to be myself - I'm intimidated or whatever. But I guess what your post made me realize is that just because I'm different with different people I'm not being fake. I hope this makes sense cuz its late and I'm tired :)

  2. Politics, sure, but religion? Vehemently. As a recovering Catholic, I have spent my adult life tip-toeing around the subject of the Church with my parents, and that's hard to do when you wear clod-hoppers.

    Also, I'm glad I read the post earlier in the month about B.C; otherwise the joke might have given me the wrong impression about your political views. Uh oh. Am I talking politics here?

  3. So very true, but something I hadn't really thought of before. It's interesting, because my son, who has high-functioning autism and many social issues is the same in any situation, which causes those issues.

  4. Wow, thank you for sharing! The quote you used up top was fascinating...definitely adding that book to my "to read" pile. I just finished composing a very difficult to a 'friend?' and was addressing some of these same questions in odd that we were thinking of these same big questions on the same day! I really identified with your post today- thanks for opening up!

  5. This "spectrum of self" is one of my favorite things to noodle about. I had always assumed that it was a product of moving around a lot and that perhaps I was a freak. I sometimes get a giggle over thinking about what would happen if all of my Facebook friends were all in the same room together. There might be bloodshed.

  6. Funny, how I can relate to this so well. I too have friends that are so different from each other, and in ways, very different from me as well. Sometimes people ask me 'How in the world are you two friends?'
    And now I get it (: Each one brings out a little part, a little side of me. Never really thought of it that way! Thanks for making me see that!

  7. Agreed on many counts. The self is indeed comprised of many facets. Recently, my self was shattered, broken into shards, left on the studio floor. I am in the process of evaluating those shards, deciding if it is possible to bring them together in some new construction. The jury is still out on the whole process.
    On a less serious note, I am actually perfectly fine about staying off the topics of politics and religion. I have strong opinions about both but I absolutely do not feel compelled to share them. Why cause issues? If I don't think my opinions are going to be appreciated, then I just keep it to myself.

  8. It's nice to be reminded that I am made up of many different facets, and as a result my friends are all different ages, inclinations and personalities.

  9. I am as genuine and sincere with each person in my life but few have any real sense of the whole picture. Nor would I want to have everyone know every little nuance and quirk about me. I don't even know them all!

    I think the blog is almost the closest I get to my full well-rounded self and even that's not completely me. It has HUGE holes in a couple of places.