Ever notice you rarely see a graphic representation or photo of any philosopher, of any era, smiling? Like maybe they just cracked a joke or were sharing a few laughs with friends? Maybe dour faces just go with the job description but putting aside that many seem to have a decent grasp of the absurdity of existence, it seems a humorless profession.
I get it. Someone has to document the more serious aspects of the whole circus. Like if you were to write a biography of a traveling carnival it would be incomplete and dishonest not to include the hardships of life on the road and getting along with everyone and the simple struggle not to be at each others’ throats on a daily basis. So I do get it. It’s just funny that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a grinning philosopher. It might be a contradiction of terms.
I’m thinking this morning of Kierkegaard’s meanderings on adopting an ascetic lifestyle and eschewing the comforts and pleasures of material society. It’s something I’ve considered about myself sometimes as those comforts and pleasures have often eluded me for one reason or another, so I’ve learned to be comfortable without them. It’s got me to wondering if Soren was just plain socially awkward so it became easier to reject many things. There are many quotes that hint at such a phenomenon in his life.
Oh man, brother! I get it!
I so understand.
I do wonder if he realized during the party that everything was going so well for him. Was he aware of the ease with which he navigated the scene, or was it hours of anxiety wondering if he were making an utter ass of himself and if the people were actually laughing at him and not with him. That could account for a lot of the exhaustion. I’ve been there.
Another place I’ve been (psychically), was he just disgusted with the degree to which he had to disappear into a character or role so far removed from himself that it made him miserable. Imagine finding that perfect character or mask that everyone loved and having to employ it continually because your authentic self came off to others as… somehow mediocre. Been there too, my Danish brother. Yes, I have.
This is veering off course. I am admittedly uncomfortable at using the terms mask and character. They imply a level of trickery or even bad intent when it all really seems more a case of basic human insecurity. We all want to be liked, or let me rephrase that. Most of us merely want to be liked. Also, more often than not it is probably usually a case of putting our best foot forward, that is we adjust the balance of true aspects of ourselves to meet a specific set of social circumstances. For example, the way I express myself is much different professionally than it is socially. Both are 100% true but the balance or chemistry may not be an accurate representation of my whole identity. Of course there are people who are just flatly dishonest, manipulative and/or narcissistic but that probably doesn’t apply to most. Most of us really do just want to make other people comfortable, but it does come at a cost.
Eleanor Rigby, puts on the face that she keeps in the jar by the door. Who is for?
Authenticity, of course, is a subject that’s gotten a lot of play in recent years and a good deal of my spaces have been dedicated to the pursuit and the topic. It’s deeply personal for me as my entire life had been spent in a state of imbalance between my authentic self and the self put forward to navigate a world that I never felt comfortable in. More of my time outside the house was performative rather than real. There was no intent of deception in any malevolent sense. it was just about my desire to provide people around me socially with a desirable commodity. It was about making people happy, but naturally at my own expense. I still never went home liking myself more for having been successful for a period of time. I didn’t like myself enough to believe that anyone else could either. True confession there. The balance has shifted though. I made changes and grew up. It took long enough; I was well into my forties before the transformation began. Social situations still exhaust me but for different reasons. As vain as this sounds, now the exhaustion comes from being mindful of not unmasking other people. It’s just not my place to decide what they bring out into the social sphere. It also sounds like an accusation or indictment and it’s not.
Kierkegaard didn’t live a particularly long life, dying at 42. His worldview could have shifted remarkably if not for the brevity of his time here on Earth. it certainly took me long enough to come to terms with the idea/fact that people don’t necessarily suck and it’s not a cruel, antagonistic and hostile Universe. Would he have died with that same philosophy that led historians to label him the first existentialist… and for me to call him The Original Doomer? That remains to be seen and to be fair to The Muse of Truth & Honesty, my world isn’t rainbows and unicorns either. It’s just not the Living Hell that I once felt it to be.
I’m still never going to be a social animal. I used to live in that paradox where as much as it depleted me to go out into public, staying home with myself, whom I loathed profoundly, wasn’t exactly a option. Now that the self-loathing and crippling insecurity aren’t there, or have at least quieted to a dull roar, spending time with my thoughts is quite enjoyable. A purpose of living and learning and growing has been established and life is good, or relatively so. Escape is rarely even a consideration, and when it is, it’s more about an escape from routine. Socializing is easier though still tiring. The tiring aspects are more, as I said, about not stepping on toes. It’s not my intent nor my job to tell people which version of themselves or which personal chemistry they should sport when they leave the house. Go on ahead, Eleanor… do you! I wouldn’t venture to tell old Soren to stop being such a fucking phony and be himself. If he wants to play the clown at a party, go right ahead.
Still, it hurts to see people close to me struggling for this balance. I’ve been so fortunate in that many wonderful people have let their guards down and invited me into their confidences. It’s not that their sadness and exhaustion was invisible. It’s easy enough to see when someone is worn down from putting on that best face. What higher compliment is there though than when someone says, “You get me. I can be myself with you. You’re so easy to be around.” I know from personal experience also that this can be tremendously unsettling. I’ve purposely avoided friendships and relationships with people who could see through the disguises. Vulnerability can be exhausting too, for many people. It’s something that with practice, however, that has become my superpower. You can sit around waiting for lightning to strike, or you can stop caring if it does. The latter is liberating. I mean, you can ask what if something bad happens, or you can ask yourself, what if it does? Vulnerability is liberating if you allow it to be. Same for standing unmasked.
Still, I’ve had two people in the last ten years, one of them a woman I cared for deeply, tell me upfront that I made them feel exposed and vulnerable. Both had told me at one point that they felt they could be themselves with me, but then after a time felt the need to create distance. I watched them go back into the situations they confided that they hated, wearing the masks they said they hated wearing. Change is… hard. I get it. And honestly, I am never going to be a social butterfly myself. Often it’s just easier to spend time with myself. It’s still fairly novel to enjoy my own company and there is rarely a loss for something of wonder and awe around me. That’s one thing I’m sure Kierkegaard would have agreed with. Seeking these things does create meaning and purpose, and it doesn’t take much effort. It’s often right there under your nose and you only have to look down. I don’t even remember the last time a social situation made me want to come home and end it all. Some tiring situations, yes. Some crashing boredom, certainly. Self-loathing? Not at all. Its’s been years. I’ve found the right chemistry. There are still days where I go out lightly veiled, but never more entirely masked and disguised. That’s freedom.