Friday, July 31, 2015

On Being Genuine

Don't hide who you really are, Teddy.
When I was younger, I distinctly remember listening to the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"—you know the part where Santa chooses Rudolph to guide the sleigh, and then "all the reindeer loved him"?—and thinking to myself, "That wouldn't make all the reindeer love him. That would make them dislike him even more."

I, at that time, spent a fair amount of effort trying to seem less good than I was. Commiserating with everyone else about hard tests or homework. Knocking off twenty points when people asked me what my score was. Agreeing that I dreaded back-to-school time when I really loved it. Complaining about how long church was, or how boring. I didn't hide my true self to a huge degree, but I did hide it. I hated when people would say (sometimes meaning well and sometimes not) that I was "good at everything" or "never did anything wrong"—partly because I knew that wasn't true, and partly because it didn't seem a compliment. No one likes people who are "good at everything."

Later I found out, of course, that there are different ways of being prideful. Priding myself on lack-of-achievement (or trying to impress others with the same) wasn't really much better than priding myself on achievement. And I learned that my motivations were usually complex, and sometimes outward modesty might be accompanied by inner feelings of superiority. But—in spite of all that—I still have a kind of horror of anyone thinking I'm better than I am—or, worse, thinking that I think I'm better than I am.

So when we discussed this talk, "On Being Genuine," in church last week, my first thought was to wonder why we would ever, as he says, "attempt to make others believe we are better than we really are"! I like people to like me, and (as I knew way back in grade school), being "better" does not necessarily make anyone like you. But of course, in our discussion, we brought up the things we show others on social media: the strategically-focused portraits, the just-careless-enough outfits, the "tossed-off" phrase carefully chosen to sound both wise and self-deprecating. And I do understand that. I don't suppose anyone is free of it. Whether I'm trying to look good by bragging, or by "keeping it real," the point is probably that "trying to look good" at all can cause problems if your goal is being genuine.

This is by no means a new subject of discussion. I think about it all the time. I guess today's world sort of forces us to think about being genuine—how to do it, if others are doing it. But it struck me, as I've been thinking about it for the past several days, what a complicated subject "being genuine" is. It seems simple at first: Just let the face you show others be authentic. Be who you really are. Don't try to look better (or worse) than you are.

But it gets more complicated when I try to articulate who I really am. I'm not just one thing. Which part of myself am I supposed to be genuine TO? To take the social media example again, someone suggested we ask ourselves something like this before posting: Why am I really posting this? Do I want to make myself look good? Or am I genuinely just celebrating the good things in my life? Well…both? I don't think I can say honestly that my intentions are always totally pure. I don't even know my own motivations fully. I do want to look good sometimes, consciously or unconsciously. I do feel insecure sometimes. On some subjects, I don't really care what other people think. On others, I do. And I really do feel overwhelmed sometimes, but I also really do want to share and be grateful for the good things in my life. So which thing is "genuine"?

Is it more genuine to say "I don't feel like going to church today" or to say "Deep down, I go to church because I love God and I want with all my heart to please Him and serve Him." Both are true at different times. Both are even true simultaneously! Which is more true? Which is "genuinely" me? Does making the second statement, even though it is not the ONLY motivation I have, make me "ungenuine"? But the same could be said if I make the first statement. Must I always list every feeling in my heart, omitting nothing, if I want to be truly genuine?

How about saying, "I love being a mother and I love my children." It's true. But it's not true in every single moment, or every aspect. When I say that, am I being inauthentic? Should every statement of goodness be qualified with a statement of weakness, to keep things real? What if both things are true, but one feels more real at the moment—then do I have to make a more nuanced mix of "one part 'I-love-it' to three parts 'I-don't-love-it'"?
Which baby is more "genuine"?
I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trying to dismiss Elder Uchtdorf's wonderful talk. I love the talk, and I'm not saying "no one can ever be truly genuine so we should just give up." I just feel like it's not a simple task. But, in fact, I think the talk gives us a couple clues about how to better go about being genuine in the way God wants us to. First of all, early in the talk Elder Uchtdorf says,
"It is part of human nature to want to look our best…There is nothing wrong with shining our shoes, smelling our best, or even hiding the dirty dishes before the home teachers arrive. However, when taken to extremes, this desire to impress can shift from useful to deceitful."
That seems to make it clear that the "desire to impress" can be useful, at least sometimes. And notice what he says: it's human nature to "want to look our best." Later in the talk, he speaks against "this temptation to appear better than we are." That seems like an important distinction: between wanting to "look our best" and wanting to look "better than" our best. So (I'm just exploring a train of thought here; I don't know if this is right or not): maybe if there's even a part of me that wants and desires to love motherhood, it's okay for me to highlight and emphasize that part. Maybe even for me to characterize myself as "someone who loves being a mother." But I shouldn't try to fit in with my peers by saying I hate school if I really love it, or by saying I don't believe in God if I really do, or whatever.

There's a good talk by Elder Dallin H. Oaks that seems to back this up. He says:
Be careful how you characterize yourself. Don’t characterize or define yourself by some temporary quality. The only single quality that should characterize us is that we are a son or daughter of God… 
We have our agency, and we can choose any characteristic to define us. But we need to know that when we choose to define ourself or to present ourself by some characteristic that is temporary or trivial in eternal terms, we de-emphasize what is most important about us, and we overemphasize what is relatively unimportant. This can lead us down the wrong path and hinder our eternal progress. 
For example, a person who calls himself an “underachiever” tends to look for—or encourage others to look for—things that interpret his behavior in those terms. That has a very different consequence than if he and others looked on his quality of “underachieving” as simply a temporary tendency that needed to be disciplined in the course of seeking graduation, employment, or eternal life. Always remember that you are a son or daughter of Heavenly Parents, seeking to qualify for your eternal heirship under that parentage.
With that in mind, I can imagine that there are some "genuine" parts of myself (the part that wants to be selfish, the part that wants to complain about life, the part that feels despair and hopelessness about various things) that I really don't want to characterize myself by. I guess it's not that I should try to hide those parts from others (they're going to see them anyway, probably, if they spend time with me), but that I don't have to feel dishonest for not leading off every blog post with, "I'm a complainer. And here's what I'd like to complain about." Ha! I can choose to focus more on my (genuine) gratitude than my (genuine) whininess—in hopes that the grateful part of me will get stronger and, eventually, form a genuinely bigger part of my personality and worldview.

I think about the optimism of President Hinckley, one of my heroes. I'm sure there were times when he, genuinely, felt worried or pessimistic or discouraged. But when he made statements of faith and hope, you would never accuse him of "trying to look better than he was." Because he was also, genuinely, full of faith. And he cultivated that part of himself. I want to be like that too.

I guess what I'm concluding, after all this, is not that we should hide all the bad or embarrassing parts of ourselves. You should know, having seen my kitchen counter, that that's not my intent. :) And I certainly don't think that someone who, in the interest of "keeping things real," writes or says something about the drudgery of motherhood, or the difficulty of marriage, is doing anything wrong. We all see things differently, as this post points out so well, and different people find hope in different messages. But I guess I'm thinking that "being genuine" can include a lot of different outlooks, and choosing those outlooks that you most want to represent your genuine self is okay. Or, in other words, that being genuine can be an aspirational, as well as a representative, exercise. And I even think, for someone who truly believes in Jesus Christ, that we should seek to highlight those (genuine) parts of ourselves that are cheerful, and kind, and beautiful, and grateful. Not because we want to appear better than we are, but because we want to make sure others know the "reason for the hope that is in us" (1 Peter 3:15).

Here's a quote by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus that says the same thing beautifully:
Optimism is a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. Hope, on the other hand, is a Christian virtue. It is the unblinking acknowledgment of all that militates against hope, and the unrelenting refusal to despair. We have not the right to despair, and, finally, we have not the reason to despair.
Theo sees a brighter future ahead.

2 comments:

  1. I've been thinking about this very thing of late. I like that Oaks quote -- defining ourselves as a child of God first and foremost. And I liked the quote about focusing on hope over despair. I've thought often of the . . . unfairness (?) I guess of how "shareable" some trials are. Does that make sense? I mean, if I have a child born with a heart problem and we have surgeries and hospital stays and all the associated hardship, I could so freely share all of that -- and I'd get encouragement and support and praise. But what if I have a child develop a drug problem? What if I have a husband with a horrible porn addiction? Then what? Support would still be so needed, but those trials that involve others and are often so much more private don't always feel like something you can share. But then what? Does that mean you are not being genuine or are painting a lie by posting pics of life's happy things or your beautiful children, etc? I have several friends who are straddling that fence pretty intensely. And I sometimes worry that, like i said in my last post, if I am struggling with things that don't feel quite right for public sharing, that I can't share anything at all. But that seems sad. I like to think of it as shining hope out, etc. I suppose much of it wouldn't be an issue without internet and social sharing -- though I suppose there are always wards and neighbors and friends. I imagine you and I could have a good long discussion on this. I know you've gone through your own trials that could surely fit in that category. But maybe "genuine" has nothing particularly to do with sharing problems? Maybe . . . meaning what you do share???

    I recently read this quote in an interview that I liked because I could relate, and am sure all women can. Still, I'm not sure I know what exactly is genuine. Maybe admitting that is good enough.

    Oh, the quote:

    "These answers are me, at my best. They are not my everything, my always, and in fact, I contradict them nearly every time I have a bad hour where my pants feel too tight and I don’t like the crossbar wrinkles between my eyes and the toddler is yelling about the tag on her shirt. I answered these in a fairly peaceful state of mind at my favorite coffee shop and look, they have just brought me eggs and hot sauce. So, I hope I do not sound too Pollyanna, or too much of an idealist, but in truth, I am. I am an intense idealist, and I will always fall short of perfection, and so will every woman who reads these words. I know you know this, so they feel safe with you and your readers. But I never want to Photoshop my words, so there you have it – raw from the cutting room floor."

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    1. I think "meaning what you do share" is actually a really good distillation of this idea. It seems obvious that none of us can share everything all the time (nor should we)---so just "not sharing everything" shouldn't be seen as "hiding something." But meaning what you do share---yeah. I like that. I like the quote, too. Now I want to read what it was she was talking about! :)

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