I came across this picture of my four year old self when I was at my parent’s home a while back. I remember this moment, my birthday party, everyone singing happy birthday to me, stuck between being delighted and squirming at being the focus of the room. I didn’t know where to look, if I should join in and sing, and I distinctly not knowing what to do with my hands. (As you can see, I settled with a stiff nonchalance…)
The brilliant Madeleine L’Engle says this about getting older.
“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still a part of me, and always will be… This does not mean I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages… the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”
We are the culmination of all of our selves. I still carry that shy, self-conscious little girl with me wherever I go.
Still torn between longing to be known, to be seen, to be delighted in, and simultaneously fearing being exposed, being seen as less-than desirable. I still find myself squirming under someone else’s attention. I can’t meet their gaze for the elusive wonderings of how they’re perceiving me; the weight I’m putting on that answer haunts me, and feeling the sting of insecurity, I look away.
I recently read this simple statement that has stuck with me in its profundity: “Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me.” (Brene Brown) It is so true. I am so drawn to those salt of the earth people who are willing to be seen, and in the revealing, I feel this relief and invitation to reveal more as well. Yet the thought of that exposure is terrifying, and I jump into reflex self-protection mode. I settle for attempting to feign confidence, but I fear it might just come across as aloof indifference- isolating me from the connection I deeply long for.
This realization isn’t new to me, or to the human race. There have been so many moments of surprised relief when I see someone else struggling with this vulnerability paradox. My twenties have been a series of perpetual “you too?!” epiphanies as I rediscover that what it means to be human is to be caught between our desire to be seen and our knee jerk reflex to hide. I have to laugh at myself when I feel like I’m coming across this great truth and articulating it, only to come across an old journal entry and realizing I’ve been here before. Oh yeah, we are all just human. Gloriously, paradoxically, imperfectly, beautifully human. That paralyzing and lie infested fear is not necessary to cling to. I will need to be continually reminded of this. Again and again, I need those brave writer’s words of truth, those heart to hearts with a kindred spirit, those encounters with people who shatter my presumptions.
Even at the risk of being repetitive, and borderline cliche, I need to keep articulating these realizations, (my coworkers are just human, my boss is just human, that person I’m intimidated by is just human, I am just human) as naming this gives me the bravery to show up and “meet their gaze,” to be fully present to the beauty that is unfolding in the moment. It is good to be reminded that that person sitting across the table is carrying a shy and self-conscious four-year-old in them too. The epiphanies free me from the trap of taking myself too seriously, to move out of my head and into Reality.
Just like my four-year-old self asked to have the same book read to me again and again, I need to be reminded over and over, the story of my own humanity as I step into the process of becoming wholly myself.