Tag Archives: authenticity

An earnest gay reader1 wonders how to comport himself at the gym:

My first instinct is to say, “Okay, simple. It’s an occasion of sin for you, so even if you’re okay in the locker room, forget the shower or sauna, or even the pool sometimes. Even if that means you have to drive home all sweaty and stink up your car.”

But then — motivated probably by equal parts pragmatism and desire to feel like I fit in as one of the normal men rather than a leper, even if it’s only in my own mind…all of this bouncing around in my head and pounding heart and hormones…I get sick of running through that script while a straight…guy just skips that whole drama and uses the facilities for their intended use without stressing out.

It’s a big deal. It reminds me of one of the differences in experience between gay guys and straight guys that Brent Bailey points to: how

those gender-specific environments that provide a relaxing, head-clearing respite from sexual temptation for straight people (like locker rooms or all-male Bible studies) are sometimes the most confusing and charged environments for me.

Yeah, me too! This is one of those things that make homosexuality a heavier cross than it would be if it were just about not-having-sex-with-men.

At the same time, though, let’s not imagine we’re weirder than we are. It’s true that straight guys don’t have to worry about arousal in all-male settings, but that doesn’t mean these settings are totally easy for them, either. A few examples:

  • I’ve seen straight guys put on an extra layer of machismo at a poker game just so as to appear dudely enough for the other dudes, until eventually you’ve got masks interacting with masks instead of people talking to people.
  • I’ve also seen guys panic briefly in the locker room because they accidentally had their head turned in my direction and they think that I might think that they were looking at me and MAYBE I WILL THINK THEY ARE GAY.2
  • And guys everywhere, gay or straight, are subject to body envy. I think it’s at least as spiritually and emotionally unhealthy to envy another man’s body, as Men’s Health and their ilk constantly encourage us to do, as it is to lust after another man’s body.

All this is a subset of a larger truth. Time after time, intimate conversation with my straight friends has confirmed that they and I want, fear, love, and worry about the same things as I do. Sometimes the only difference is my residual fear that the things I feel are somehow icky because they’re somehow gay; when it usually turns out they’re not gay so much as male, and not male so much as human.

So, you might feel unsettled when you’re in the locker room, but at least you don’t have to feel unsettled about feeling unsettled. It’s not just you. Peace of heart in all situations is something to shoot for, but most of us aren’t there yet.

1 Standard disclaimer: as is my policy, I obtained the explicit permission of the reader in question before deciding to write this piece.
2 Which is all pretty dopey. It reminds me of what Brett & Kate McKay have to say about what happened to male friendships when people started getting freaked out about The Gay Thing.

…to publicly disclose your homosexuality, if that is what you want to do:

If you ask me to live a life where, in casual conversation with friends, I never make reference to anything that has to do with my sexuality, then you’re asking me to live a life that is very much different from the lives of 99% of the population.

Which is to say, most people don’t talk about their sexuality nonstop, and if they do, there’s something wrong with them. But most people don’t have to take GREAT CARE to NEVER mention anything that has to do with their sexuality — and if they do, there’s something wrong. Not necessarily something wrong with them, but maybe something wrong with the society who made them feel that they had to live that way.

Straight people don’t keep discussions of their sexuality between them and their therapists and spiritual directors, because their sexuality is not shameful. So I shouldn’t have to, either, because mine isn’t, either.

So, to the (relatively very small contingent of) people who are put off by my public declaration: given the fact that gay people already have to live lives that are different from the vast majority of the population, do you really want to burden us further by stipulating that we never ever mention those bits of our lives that are different?

So, no, I don’t plan to talk about this all the time. I just love (O how I love!) being able to do so, if I feel like it, without it being a Big Thing, and without it requiring mounds of explanation first.

Happy Sunday.

“True friendship,” says C. S. Lewis, “is the least jealous of loves.” We in the SSA crowd, or anyway the neurotic crowd, or maybe just the human crowd, hear that and cringe, because so many of us are such amateurs at friendship, amateurs in every sense: we dabble in it, we’re fascinated by it to the point of obsession, and our talent for it is decidedly imperfect.

True friendship? Most of us have scraps of it, but our actual friendships seem to exist on the perpetual verge of collapse, held together by duct tape and desperate good intentions; and jealousy intrudes, painfully, over and over. How well we know the signs of its approach, and how powerless we feel to stop it!

Like any amateur, I sometimes watch the experts — are there friendship experts? — to see how it’s done.

I noticed that my friends A and B had a tendency to express their fondness for each other via insults. “Ah ha!” said my crafty little lizard brain. “This is what friends do! I, too, will insult A, and let’s see whether we become better friends because of it.”

So I tried it out, but something went wrong. When I insulted A, he looked faintly hurt, and instead of responding with an insult of his own (as I had seen him do to B), he laughed uncomfortably and said, “Ah, yeah, you’re probably right.”

Waitwaitwait, cancel, retreat, abort! That isn’t what I meant at all. But this is what comes of being crafy, especially of being crafty where friendship is concerned: your friends get hurt and you look mean.

I understood belatedly what A and B’s insults had meant. It wasn’t that they had made a conscious decision to express friendship via insults, nor was it that insults are the universal language of male friendship. This was just the particular shape their friendship had developed, slowly and organically, over the years of its evolution.

And my appropriation of their particular brand of camaraderie suddenly looked grotesque and desperate, because, unfortunately, it was.

I was driving to work and this particular scene came back to me — you know that horrible splurch you get when you suddenly remember something grotesque and desperate that you’ve done?1 — but, thankfully, I also remembered that bit from Lewis’ Four Loves:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.2

I’ve seen this in the way only J. will shout when only M. makes a particularly asinine point, or only L. will cackle when only C. is crass in his exactly C.-like flavor of crassness. It’s also evident in the way, if M. and I find ourselves in a room without the accustomed presence of J., we suddenly won’t know what to say to each other: J. turns out to have been a bridge between us, a way for us to enjoy each other. Lacking him, we have to find other ways.

But the other part of that picture is a part we can’t see: ourselves. Cue Walker Percy:

Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else — or size up Saturn — in a ten-second look?”3

We don’t know our own part in the peculiar lattice of relations that exists between us and our friends, but make no mistake — we do have such a part. Whatever my opinion of myself, I am irreplaceable to them as each of them is to me. My own face will suddenly take on an expression that is characteristically Steve, and my friends will notice, but I won’t have the faintest idea about it; if I did, that would spoil it.

That’s how it works. We are not only for ourselves. The list of things I know about myself is not the same as the list of things my friends know about me. I am not even the best lover of myself, since I can never see in myself that very Steveness that is exactly what my friends love about me. I will never be able to see it. But I know it is there, because there are those that love me; so I don’t have to worry about it terribly much.

In other words, I have only to be myself; which (and this is the part they never tell you) I can only do when I am paying attention to the peculiarly lovable selves of everybody else.

1 This often happens while I’m driving.4 If you ever see me suddenly wince in traffic, that’s probably why.
2 From The Four Loves. Context is here.
3 This is from Percy’s Lost In the Cosmos, also known as The Best Book For Weirdos To Read To Feel Less Like Weirdos. The context is here.
4 Which is one reason why I sometimes listen to Savant and/or Skrillex when I’m driving. Did you know, if you turn the dubstep up loud enough, you can’t think of anything at all?

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.

1 Sail by, like moles. This metaphor may have gotten away from me.
2 What were you thinking, Dostoevsky? The quote’s from Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s just terrible advice, at least for anybody who’s already prone to living in their own head. The Russians, you can’t trust ‘em.

The other day, because I’m not used to dealing with life without tobacco (12 days so far, whee!) and because I ran out of my meds accidentally that morning (I’ve got some more now) and because sometimes things are just a lot to take, I found myself sitting in my cubicle and looking at my screen through a blur of tears.

Sometimes an attack like that can be dodged by refocusing, but this wasn’t that kind. It was a real will-sapper. I felt like limp lettuce. Limp lettuce that was suddenly very sad for no reason.

I dragged myself out of my chair and pulled my friend and coworker M. outside with me for a non-smoking break — we are quitting together — and proceeded to burst into tears in front of him. There wasn’t anything he could do, because the attack wasn’t because of anything in particular. But, strange to tell, it helped immensely. I think I know why.

At one point I would have dealt with an episode like this by heading to the bathroom, locking the door, and collapsing in a corner for a while. I’d fantasize about turning to this or that person for help, but talk myself out of it for various reasons: that it wouldn’t do any good, or that they’ve got their own problems, or that I didn’t want to feed my own self-pity. Then I’d clean myself up, check my eyes for redness as if I’d been smoking dope, and get back to work.

But it’s a very lonely feeling to be desperately sad and to have nobody know about it. It’s one more way to reinforce the idea that you are irrevocably different, and that your problems are somehow invalid, not allowable.

Doing it all in front of somebody, on the other hand, is a very different experience. It’s a question of being seen; and this, all by itself, helps makes you feel like a part of the human race after all, instead of someone invisibly locked in a bathroom somewhere, having his private problems that nobody knows about and nobody can solve.

It gives you the chance to see that your friends can see you at your worst and take it in their stride, without being surprised (because they will have been there, too) or weirded out (because being sad isn’t weird). It also honors the friend — says to him, See, I trust you enough to fall apart in front of you. It gives him a chance to say all the fairly meaningless but surprisingly helpful things that can be said in such a situation: talk to me, hang in there, I’m here for you.

Remember, it’s a mitzvah to let somebody else do a mitzvah for you.

“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”

I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?

When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.

My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”

He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”

Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:

  • Eating conspicuously healthy food
  • Buying brand-name clothing
  • Being too intellectual
  • Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands during the Our Father

Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.

It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.

I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.

Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)

After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ‘em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.

To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.

What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?

1 The Public School Kid was a firmly-established archetype in my childhood. They swore, listened to Metallica, and wore their caps backwards, even when the brim would’ve been useful for keeping the sun out of their eyes. STOOPID.
2 I don’t really listen to Celine Dion. Or maybe I do. Do I even like her? I’m not sure. I’m just worried I don’t hate her as much as I’m supposed to.
3 I bet most passive-aggressive people would be surprised and chagrined at how often their vengeful strategems go — not ignored, not resisted — but completely unnoticed.

Back when I was in college and as crazy as a bedbug — a bedbug on a steady diet of caffeine, nicotine, and Nietzsche — I decided I was the phoniest bastard in the history of the universe and I wasn’t going to stand it anymore.

I lie constantly, I told myself, and not only in words: I lie with my face, my tone of voice, my gestures, and even the way I walk. That raised eyebrow? It was calculated to make you think I’m sophisticated. The way I laughed? Designed to make you think I’m boisterous and cynical.

So to remedy the situation I wrote down on my fingers — one per finger — all the ways I could think of that I lied. That way, every time I saw my hands, I would be reminded to CUT IT OUT.

Please, you don’t need to tell me how insane this is. You have to understand, I was doing the best I could, 19 years old and so full of neurosis you could probably see it swirling around when you looked in my eyes.

My friend M. saw my fingers all marked after dinner and asked what that was all about. “It’s to remind me of all the ways I lie,” I said, solemnly, careful to hold my eyebrows still, keep my voice flat, and not move my mouth in an insincere way. “Oh my God,” she muttered, amazed and disgusted. I brushed her off (she didn’t understand) and went off to wander back to the dorm, practicing authenticity with every step.

It is not hard to understand why, during this time, I found social contact even more difficult than usual. It was a beautiful double bind I had put myself in: I was desperate to fit in, but fitting in seemed to require consciously adapting things that were foreign to me — or that most foreign, artificial thing of all, the thing all the Normals recommended, called Being Yourself.

Looking back, I get to laugh, maybe shudder a little at how close I might have come to actual psychosis, and thank God I’m not there anymore. I don’t remember how long it took me to give up the project. I do remember the feeling of my own limbs and facial muscles settling around me like lead, the strange mummy-like feeling of trying to control every inch of my body every minute.

I thought that if I just cut off all the artificial parts, the Real Me (which must be buried underneath) would emerge. I was trying to cast off every mask, but the more I held still to let my own face surface, the less it felt like I had a face at all.

There was no eureka moment when I realized what I had got wrong, but I was thinking about all this yesterday on the way home from work, probably because I’m hosting a poker game tonight. I know how I’ll be at the game: probably drink and swear a little more than usual, probably act a little more arrogant than I feel, probably use some turns of phrase that aren’t strictly natural to me.

But I won’t feel bad about it. Because I’ve discovered that this is how it is with people, maybe especially men. This is how we work. A stag party has as rigorous a code of etiquette as a black tie dinner. The rules aren’t written down anywhere, but they function the same way etiquette always functions: they provide a field in which to speak, to interact, to dance the intricate dance of human contact.1

A field, actually, in which relationship is possible. If etiquette is a mask, it is a mask that allows us to reveal our truest selves — but prudently, slowly, a little bit at a time, in a human way. How many people do you know who sit around the dinner table and reveal deep truths about their souls? Do you really want to live inside a Russian novel all the time — or is a little small talk okay now and then?

Buckle down, I’d tell my 19-year-old self, and learn the rules. Swallow your pride, forget yourself a little, and play the game. You want radical honesty and authenticity? Then walk around naked. Or you could just choose an outfit that expresses who you want to be, not who you are — we don’t find ourselves, Fr. T once told me, we build ourselves — and wait until the man grows to fit the clothes.

It might happen sooner than you think.

1 Not that I’d say these things to my poker buddies, or anyway not in the middle of a game. F★ck no. Who’s big blind?