It’s 2003, and I am afloat emotionally and spiritually and socially and nearly every other way a 20-year-old can be afloat. The administration keeps talking about community, like it has for the last three years: building it, taking part in it, respecting it, supporting it; but I don’t know what community is, don’t even know that I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m alone on a sinking ship.
I think some kind of class spirit is supposed to have gelled by now, but it hasn’t. A couple of people have noticed the way I glom onto the new freshman class every year. I hear, secondhand, that they think I’m purposely aloof from my own class. Really I’m just looking for a second chance.
This year one of the incoming freshmen is Sal. He hasn’t been there long before he has pulled together a small cadre of freshman guys, through sheer force of levity. I don’t know how he does it or how he got what he has or why I get to be on the inside, but I do, because Sal is my friend. I am the stray electron to his free radical.
We are drinking cheap wine in somebody’s dorm room. Privately, I am elated and terrified: elated because here we are, a bunch of young guys, drinking and making dirty jokes, just like you are supposed to do; terrified because at any second I may be found out. What, exactly, will be found out? I don’t yet know how to ask myself this question.
I laugh a laugh that is not quite mine and wait for just the right moment to pronounce the casual-sounding sentence that I have spent the last five minutes constructing, hoping desperately that nobody knows me well enough to hear all the false notes. And wishing desperately that somebody did.
While everyone else is blowing off steam, I’m building it up, because this kind of performance is hard to sustain. Finally everyone is gone but me and Sal. I burst into tears and explain incoherently that it’s all fake, that I just wanted to be normal, that I don’t know how to do any of this, that none of it comes naturally. Above all I accuse myself of what I consider the worst of sins: being a fraud.
Sorry, Sal, I don’t remember what you said to comfort me, because I couldn’t hear anything except what was in my own head. Anyway it’s not always important what friends say with words. I remember that we were sitting on the floor and you touched my ankle kindly, which meant a lot, and that when I stumbled out of the room, trailing a good six inches of snot from my nose, the look on your face didn’t show anything but warm concern. That meant a lot, too.
It’s a decade later. I have been learning how not to take seriously the kind of nonsensical, spontaneous self-accusations that my mind still throws at me from time to time. When they pop up like moles I whack ’em down again, with my well-practiced hammer, or just watch them sail by.1 As a result, they have been popping up less and less, and making less noise when they do.
I am learning that the thing I called conscience was mainly neurotic guilt, and that my actual conscience is a lot quieter and more easily ignored; that neither the best things about me nor the worst things are what I would have expected.
I am better at friendship now, good at it in fact, if friendship is something you can be good at. A lot changes in ten years. I know that being inauthentic isn’t the worst sin, and that being completely authentic all the time is something only gods and beasts can do.
My therapist puts the cap on all this for me when she gives me a safeguard against that tension and guilt, a way to acquit myself of the constant suspicion of falseness. “You can’t be false,” she said, “if you are taking delight in the person you’re with.”
That cuts right through the Gordian knot of self-absorption. I don’t have to monitor myself, to “watch over my own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute”.2 I just have to focus on the people I’m with, and be glad to be with them. Less of me, more of them.
That’s not so hard.