He had never seen her like this, lost and unsure. Without her unshakeable calm, she was a different Cara.
For the first time, he realized that meant he had to be a different Tom.
I can still remember the day I realized that in the story of my life I was as much villain as hero. I was at that in-between age, not completely a child but definitely not an adult. Most of my free hours in those days were spent holed up in my room with my hands wrapped around a book and my head in some other world where I was someone exciting and wonderful. In reality, of course, I was a tangle-haired preteen in a disgustingly messy suburban bedroom.
That hole of a room was a point of serious contention between me and my mom. (I know, I was such a unique snowflake, wasn’t I?) One fall day, when the room was particularly rank and I wanted nothing more than to be left alone, I remember standing in the hallway, blocking the door as my mom tried to enter. I’m not sure if it was the general horror or if there was some particular thing I didn’t want my mom to see. It could have been unauthorized candy wrappers or moldy crusts of food I had sneaked. It could have been the litter of crayon papers and the soot-blackened china cup where I had been melting crayons over a candle for no particular reason. Whatever motivated me, instead of facing the inevitable (and appropriate) judgement, I stood in the hallway and calmly told my mom that I needed my room to stay private for a few weeks because I was working on making Christmas presents for everyone in the family.
I know. This was a total lie. Not only were there no secret gifts of love, I hadn’t even thought of such a thing until that moment. It was just a noble sounding reason to have no one come inside. And it worked. Whether she believed me or just decided not to press the issue, my mom didn’t even try to enter. I slipped back in and closed the door behind me and felt the pride of my success battle with the depressing knowledge that now I would have to take time away from my self-absorbed daydreaming and crayon-melting to figure out some kind of present to make for people so that I wouldn’t get caught in my lie. Yes, that really was my main concern.
It was only in the very smallest part of my mind that I let myself see what that lie meant about me. That lie, more than any of the other hundreds of little lies I had told before, made my thoughtful and loving and loving self nothing more than a cover for a selfish little hoarder. And the only thing standing between my hero image and my groveling reality was a thin wooden door and some ridiculous bravado.
Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered. She could not decide whether to let them crumble or to try desperately to save them.
–Adam Gidwitz, The Inquisitor’s Tale
I don’t tell my little story to be self-deprecating or to make a mountain out of a pre-teen molehill. I tell that story precisely because it is small, and because I’ve come to believe that this is how most of us are living, a series of small daily decisions to invest more in our images than in our reality. And I’m not primarily referring to the image that we present to others. I mean the images we hold of ourselves and by extension the images of others we cling to as we maintain our own.
You know how much I love words, but I’m afraid they are often our enablers in this self-deception. Words can call out the truth, but they are still just tools to uncover reality, they aren’t reality itself. If we let them, words freeze our thoughts in place.
Fairy tales give the impression that people are easily categorized as good or evil. The characters in novels always have perfectly scripted words to say to express their love or to solve their mysteries. Historical figures are defined with the clarity of hindsight. News articles neatly label people and events, placing them into easily-digested groups.
It’s so easy to believe this fixed picture of the world. Until we spend time with real people.
Real people baffle us by being both wonderful and terrible. Real people seldom communicate clearly. Real people defy definition and slip out from under the labels we give them. Who wants to deal with all that? The snapshot was much less hassle.
And yet we feel so alone.
And each and every one of us standing in the garden that night would take an entire universe of stories with us when we died, the accounts of every small moment that did not seem grand enough to storytellers, which would disappear in smoke when our bodies were burned.
–Alwyn Hamilton, Hero at the Fall
Much as we might wish to be, we are not characters in a story. We are humans, made up of all our moments, noble and craven, grand and ridiculous. We have the strength our fragile bodies can hold and we have a finite set of days to live. We struggle to know what we want because many desires battle inside us. We are a tangle so complex that it takes a lifetime just to know ourselves (if we ever arrive at that sought after destination).
And so is everyone else we know.
Your brother, your wife, your father, your old friend. They are more than just those words. They are a mixture of memories and motivations, of decisions and dreams. Your hero, the one you are most invested in keeping on a pedestal, has deep flaws and will almost certainly fail you under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Worse, your villain has redeeming qualities, which don’t negate their villainy but do complicate judgment. Every human being on earth is fascinating and awful and wonderful and boring.
And that. is. good.
When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.
–John Green, Paper Towns
This is the key to ending our isolation. We have to take the good and the bad together. We have to stop ignoring or condemning the cracks and peek through them instead. We have to accept that it’s complicated.
“But I had never wanted to be her boyfriend. I wanted something smaller than that, and far, far bigger, something I couldn’t yet put into words…I wanted the two of us to be complicated together, to be difficult and and blindingly brilliant.”
-Brittany Cavallaro, A Study in Charlotte
You see the beauty of it, right? I let go of my image of you, and I love you as the complicated human that you actually are. Then I’m free to be loved as I am. I can open the door to my grubby little bedroom and stop inventing gifts that I don’t know how to produce. I release my grip on the narrative of my life and I speak the contradictory truth of me out loud.
I’ve always loved the idea of the Speaker for the Dead that Orson Scott Card presents in his novel Ender’s Game.
“They began to live by it as best they could, and when their loved ones died, a believer would arise beside the grave to be the Speaker for the Dead, and say what the dead one would have said, but with full candor, hiding no faults and pretending no virtues. Those who came to such services sometimes found them painful and disturbing, but there were many who decided that their life was worthwhile enough, despite their errors, that when they died a Speaker should tell the truth for them.”
–Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
As it turns out, speaking the truth about our lives is more deeply satisfying than the most beautiful lie. It proves that we were real, that we lived, and that the truth of our life is something worth telling.
What if we could give one another that gift? The gift of being known. The gift of being accepted. The gift of being.
What if we dared to speak before we were dead?