We all need it. In fact, we all crave it. Yet our modern society has made it all but impossible to get it. It’s socially unacceptable, social dynamite. It upsets all our cherished power structures.
I’m talking about the permission to be human.
You may not have heard about this concept, but I’m sure you intuitively grasp it. Being human is not exactly … how shall I put it? … sexy. Being human is sooo Neanderthal. Well, almost. Primitive.
We give children permission to be human “because they don’t know better.” But when we see humanity in our spouse, our family, our friends, our society (and, let’s not forget, our politicians), then we get all uptight about it.
“How dare so-and-so let me down? She promised!”
“Don’t let your home life interfere with your professional life!”
“Old people are such a nuisance.”
We’ve all heard statements like these, and many more besides. Being fragile is OK, but don’t let it shine through. Being yourself is OK when you’re attending a pop psychology seminar, but don’t wear neon baggies to work – we don’t like weirdos.
The process of building masks is a time-consuming, energy-intensive exercise. It begins at school (or even kindergarten), where standing out in the crowd is a sure-fire way of focusing unwelcome attention on yourself. University is pretty much the same, except here you learn to wear at least two masks – a “jocky mask” towards your classmates and a “nerdy” mask towards your seniors. When you enter the workplace, things get really complex, with different masks for co-workers, managers, family and a variety of other social categories. Wear them well, switch them fast, and you’ve qualified to be an adult. Congratulations!
You know what?
Wearing a mask is jolly stressful. And it leaves you feeling empty inside, as if the mask eats up all that is solid in you, leaving nothing but the hollow eye sockets and the mouth slit.
Wearing many masks seriously messes with your mind.
No wonder that the current average age of diagnosing depression in America stands at 14. Think of what your life was like at 14. I bet YOU hadn’t even heard of “depression” at the age of 14. Now it’s as common as Dinky Toys were in our days (a minute of silence for Dinky Toys, please).
Like everyone else, I learnt to wear masks. I was quite good at them, I think. The “strong silent type”, the “sporty type”, the “intellectual type”, the “spiritual type”. And so forth. It nearly killed me. And it’s probably almost killing you, too.
I give you the permission to be human. And I kindly ask you to give me the permission to be human, too.
That means, it’s OK if we fail in our promises (eek!). It means it’s OK if our lives and lifestyle choices don’t agree with each other. It’s OK to be old, it’s OK to be fragile, it’s OK to be vulnerable, it’s OK to be sick, it’s OK to be terminally ill. It’s even OK if you wear neon baggies to work (as long as you don’t mind me wearing dark glasses to work, too…).
Here’s something I learnt from Alcoholics Anonymous (thank goodness I learnt it the academic way and not the “other way”):
“I’m not OK and you’re not OK, but that’s OK.”
Failing at other’s expectations is normal. It is HUMAN. Failing at our own expectations of ourselves is normal. It is HUMAN. The first step in addiction recovery is to recognise that you have a problem – a problem that is way bigger than your ability to solve it. What is abnormal is trying to act as if those failings are non-existent or trivial. They’re not (mostly). The attempt to fix our failings in secret while keeping up appearances is a recipe for even greater (and public) failure. It is time for us to learn the distinction between (1) accepting imperfection in ourselves and others without (2) sweeping those imperfections under the carpet. This sounds paradoxical, but it really isn’t. Should I fail in my promise to you, I should not let your forgiveness of that failure let me off the hook of reforming myself. Quite the opposite, in fact. Even so, that reform should remain visible, public, accountable.
I can’t tell you how many cancer survivors I meet who act as if all is well. They act this way until almost the very day they die. They pretend to be their old selves, they pretend to be on the mend, they pretend that God has healed them, they may even pretend that they’re not scared. In a few cases, this is true. For the rest, it is pure, unadulterated bull faeces and it robs them (and their loved ones) of the chance to work through their grief and death tasks, setting their house in order and saying their final goodbyes while they are still strong enough to do so meaningfully.
This is but one example how our masks rob us of deep joy. There are many others like this. In my case, I suffer from a number of illnesses (more about that on another day). Yet I mostly pretend I can cope like any healthy person, while I’m not really able to. Truth be told, I’m a burden on my wife and my shortcomings make it hard for me to do my job well. I’m a human, living amongst humans. I’m no angel, I’m no saint, I’m no sage, I’m no genius. And, for all I know, neither are you.
Let’s keep it honest.
Today, before going to bed, take time to tell the people closest to you that you give them the permission to be human. Who knows, maybe they will grant you the same kindness.
May this (already slightly shop-soiled) 2014 be a year of special relationships and much joy.