What would it be like if you had no mental filters? Whatever you thought, you said? I knew a man who had this problem, due to a traumatic brain injury. I will never forget the first thing he said to me, ‘Your breath stinks like coffee.” I would have taken offense, but I knew his problem. (I did start brushing my teeth after drinking espresso).
One of my favorite passages from classical literature comes from the third chapter of Charles Dicken’s book, A Tale of Two Cities.
The Night Shadows
A Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?
I have always been intrigued by this disconnect between who we are in most inward places and who we are on the surface. As this passage suggest, even those who know us best, don’t really know us.
I first noticed this phenomenon as a little boy when the pastor came for his once a year dinner at our house. We had strict orders to pretend things we were not. It was theatrical. It wasn’t that my mom and dad were bad people, but it was the standard. Keep you church clothes on. Sit on the couch with your hands folded. No swear words. Say nothing (because we might give the family away, like saying you dad has whiskey in the basement). As I got older, I noticed this disconnect more and more in society where we say or do what society expects, while burying more and more of our true selves. But that society isn’t “Pop culture” as much as confirming to the people inside our little bubble (church people, professional people, Republicans, Democrats, etc.)
Maybe this would be a good time to go back and read The Catcher in the Rye.
When I had blog called “The Christian Monist” I described it this way. Our persona is like a 100-story building, where the ground or first floor is our truest self. Most of us live on about the thirtieth floor. Some people, especially public figures, politicians, and the worst. . . TV evangelists, live somewhere up on the 70th floor. Complete phonies. If you read what was on the historical Jesus’ heart it was honesty and candidness, not show. Not pretend. Not playing the church game or the good citizen game.
I will add another level, and that is the basement. The basement is the Freudian world of the things that are true but are so difficult for us to think about, that we, ourselves, can’t discuss them insider our own heads. Sometimes I think bizarre dreams are representative of this hidden world but using symbols. as our brains try to organize the thoughts of the day.
I will share a dream to illustrate this basement level. This is a personal story acting only an illustration and not meant to be a focus of discussion.
About a week ago, I spent one night watching YouTube videos of the musical numbers from the movie, Les Miserables. An old Air Force, conservative, friend (finally I had to give up on that friendship) would say, “Mike, that was very gay of you.” One of the most moving (actually they all are) is the final number where the Valjean (the protagonist) is dying and being led to Heaven by Cossette, (his adoptive daughter). I must link that scene below because it is so moving.
That night, I had a vivid dream that my dear brother, Gary, who is facing death with leukemia right now, came into my bedroom and asked me to go to Heaven with him. He was already in a state of transfiguration. I felt torn. I told him that I couldn’t leave earth right now. But then Denise came into the bedroom and encouraged me to go with him in this journey. I said, “But Denise, I have people on earth who still need me.” To which she replied, “No, not really. Not any more. No one needs you here. Go.”
Of course Denise has never said that. But it unveiled to me a hidden world of my subconscious, where I fear not being valuable or wanted on earth anymore. I know that I’ve shared some of those thoughts here up on the thirtieth level. Please don’t write nice things, which so many of you do, to tell me how much I’m needed. I appreciate the thoughts, you are very kind, but it would make me feel guilty as if were “complement baiting.”
While I’ve always had this interest in the person of the heart vs the person of public view, there was a unique situation, where this came to the surface.
About thirty years ago I was in the middle of an extreme evangelical group, at times, almost cult like. I started to realize that we were on a path that was diverging from reality. I’ve shared before how we put on a strong façade of being very spiritual (all of our language soaked in “God talk”) and we falsified miracles all the time. I will not get into that here. Then one day, like a light blub going off I realized that we were faking it. At that juncture I dedicated my life to try living as authentically as I can. It has been a rough road and not a very popular path to take. The old phony Mike had more friends. The phony Mike had more respect. The old Mike, however, never used words like shit, damn, moron, idiot. He would just smile and try very hard to be nice all the time.
Niceness has its place but is highly over-rated. I try very hard not to attack individuals, because I do carry a lot of grace. I have to. I need it to cover my own flaws. But I do not hesitate to criticize public figures, if they are behaving badly, causing unnecessary suffering and death. I don’t like Hitler. I don’t like Putin or Assad. They are self-centered assholes. I think Donald Trump is a narcissistic, racist, moron who has, directly caused the deaths and suffering for countless people. Just from COVID-19, at least 50,000 lives, have been lost directly related to his mismanagement. Sometimes we play too nice when we are faced with evil. But I diverge.
I am encouraged by my kids’ generation. They have a much greater desire to live authentically than my generation did or my parents’.
In my book Ristretto Rain (which I hope will be on the market during the first week of July) I directly explore this whole idea of secret lives and honest living. First, I start with a coffee shop (which could be like any social gathering place) where everyone carries deep secrets. Then I add a character, that as the result of a brain injury, has no ability to live anywhere but on the ground floor. In neurology, we call it “disinhibition.” This character has no ability but to say only exactly what he thinks, for better or worse. My mom was a little like that. She would ask a heavy person, a stranger, sitting in a lobby beside her, “Did you ever try to diet to get that weight off?” We would all blush.
I also introduce a co-protagonist who has, almost a supernatural ability, to look directly through facades and at someone’s most intimate level of thought. It has been a lot of fun exploring this labyrinth of madness.
The take away, is that I encourage everyone to live more authentically. Don’t say or do what you think others would want the most. Stand for justice, truth (but not the “American Way,” per Superman) even if it means not being nice. But don’t fight for selfish gain. Do defend the weak. Do not say or do what you think will impress other people the most. Live in truth, in honesty, and do it in love.
3 responses to “Ramblings: The Art of Dissembling; (The Great Chasm Between Our True Selves, and the Selves that we Project)”
You are wanted, needed, loved, respected, and gifted in this world. Stay with us and keep sharing. When you fell up to it, get back into telemed consultation. Even if you don’t prescribe or do procedures, your thinking and wisdom, listening and willingness make a difference that is beyond measure. A friend just took a course on telemedicine to be a social worker in that world. You are loved.
Andrea, I would love to do tele-medicine but it has nothing to do with how I feel. I must have a legal platform from which to see patients. That means a business, a malpractice coverage and the list goes on and on. I tried this once with Pacific Rim Headache Clinic. While flooded with patients, it almost bankrupted me do the the intense overhead of operating in this society. Maybe I could get away with it in Mexico. I hope you are doing well.
Mike, Another thoughtful writing. I’m now anxious to read your new book and The Catcher in the Rye. If we read it in high school, I don’t remember. I didn’t read most books.
Sometimes I think I know who I am and then something new happens and I find I have changed. For example, I didn’t think I could shoot anyone even if they broke into my house. Then the riots started near me and I became aware of being scared that crazy looters could break into my safe neighborhood and destroy everything and I started to think that I wished I had a gun. I didn’t go out and buy one, but I have a couple that are probably 100 years old. Probably don’t work. I don’t care so much that looters will take my stuff, but just destroying stuff makes me really angry, enough to actually shoot someone.