Saturday, December 29, 2012

Playing Peek-a-Boo With Myself

Do you know why peek-a-boo is no longer a fun game for you?

If you answered, “Because I’m not a baby,” you’re pretty much exactly right. Brilliant, I know. So the real question is, why do babies find peek-a-boo so delightfully, giggle-inducingly fascinating?

Because, when they can’t see you for that brief instant, they think you disappear. That’s right. All you have to do to become a Houdini-class magician to a baby is hide your face with your hands. Enjoy it now. You will never be entertaining so easily ever again.

It’s a pretty big deal in child development. Mommy doesn’t cease to exist simply because she stepped into the hallway. Daddy is actually continuing to live and breathe when he’s not being monitored by the watchful eyes of the baby in the crib. That stunning revelation has a fancy psychological name: object permanence.

It doesn’t take us too long to realize that other people exist when we aren’t around. But, for most people, it’s much harder to deal with the idea that we exist when we’re not around.

During my Sunday School years, I never understood the meaning of verses like Proverbs 21:1, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” I mean, I liked my name, don’t get me wrong. But I’d take gold any day.

Eventually, someone must have explained to me that a “good name” meant a good reputation, but I doubt that helped at all. I was one of those free-spirited kids who, until the awkward jr. high years, acted as if she was cool even though she was the most clumsy little bowl-cut-and-glasses-dweeb on the playground. (At recess one day, I got my entire fourth grade class to play “Transcontinental Railroad,” which is what we were learning about in history class.)

Now, though, I think I understand. There is a great comfort in knowing that you are respected and admired, that your name is used only in good ways when you’re not there. It’s a kind of self-permanence that I don’t think many people have, including me.

Sometimes, I think I only exist where I am physically present. I’m actually surprised when a person knows who I am before we’ve met, even if we have mutual friends, or when someone repeats an anonymous compliment given to me in my absence. Why would anyone be talking about me? I wonder. There are 7 billion other people out there to talk about, plus current events and pop culture and all of the philosophical and theological questions of the ages. I can’t possibly be significant enough for people to mention.

(Which, technically, is true, except that we all know that the people around us and their tiny, everyday snubs and jokes and triumphs are often more interesting to us than the other more significant subjects we could be discussing.)

At other times, I have an exaggerated sense of my own self-permanence and hope that all of my devoted fans (who, I’m quite sure, are many) constantly praise my many virtues and talents. Actually, that’s a lie. I rarely, if ever, think that. My arrogance is a bit more modest. I worry about what people think of me, while imagining what they might be saying. Or I’m afraid they think too highly of me—calling me brave, gracious, or wise when I know I’m weak, selfish, and cowardly. Or I live with the timid half-hope that if I wasn’t around, if I had never been born, my entire community would turn into a bleak and joyless Pottersville.

Our sense of self-permanence is tricky because we can’t control it. Once we’re gone, people can say anything about us, interpret or misinterpret our words and actions in any number of ways, and give their silent approval or disapproval like the thumbs up or thumbs down of the Roman arena.

Maybe you can’t relate to this. You live boldly, without caring a bit about what other people think. Great. You should still keep reading, though, because you are surrounded by people who are insecure and needy and longing for your approval, even if they don’t admit it to themselves or others.

Here are some things I’m learning about how to have a more balanced view of self-permanence, one that isn’t driven by fear. As usual, the only thing that makes me an expert is that I’m a failure-in-progress on all of this.

But, hey, aren’t all of us?

  • Reputations are fragile things, and words are extremely powerful ones. We build images and expectations for people who aren’t there whenever we mention them. It would be great if we talked more about the good in others than the bad, even if the bad is more fulfilling to vent about. Sometimes I struggle with gossip, but mostly, I’m extremely enthusiastic about people when they’re not around, so much so that my roommate got me a stamp of approval—a literal rubber stamp—to use anytime I expressed my approval of someone. I haven’t used it much, since it seems a bit arrogant (“Congratulations! You have officially earned my highly significant approval.”), but I still enjoy singing the praises of awesome people to anyone who cares and probably a few who don’t.
  • I am not a writer. I am not a student or a friend or a daughter or a small group leader. Actually, I am all of those things, but before any of them, I am a child of God. Everyone talks about how important self-image and identity is, and that’s nice, but what does it even mean, anyway? I think it means willfully deciding that your worth comes not from what you do or what you look like or what others say about you, but in who you are in Christ, even when you do not feel that way at all. It’s clinging to something true until your emotions catch up.
  • To a certain degree, there’s nothing wrong with caring about what someone thinks of you. It can even be a helpful moral grid sometimes. (“Would I wear this in front of the guys in my jr. high youth group?” “Would I say that if one of the freshmen was listening?”) But you have to be selective about whose opinion matters to you. I have decided not to care if someone I barely know thinks my opinion is dumb or gives my books a bad review on Good Reads or doesn’t want to talk to me. I say “I have decided” because it’s a choice, not a first reaction. My first reaction is always to care. It’s a pride thing. But there are a handful of people who I really admire, and they have earned the right to criticize or compliment me and have it mean something.
  • Love covers a multitude of sins, but it also covers a multitude of forgotten birthdays, moments where you don’t know what to say, good intentions gone wrong, and general awkwardness. Those are the things we tend to run over in our minds and wonder about. (“She said it was okay, but does that really mean okay?” “I cannot believe I said that!”) If you genuinely love people—not to win their approval, but for their own sakes—they will know that, and they’ll forgive the times when you mess up.

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