Secrets and Avatars, Part III: Pretentiousness

As stated before, I have always been interested in how we form a gap between who we really are in our secret, personal spaces, and how we present ourselves to the public. I am thinking about this concept now, and writing about it, because my next novel–if I choose to write another one–is centered on a dark family secret and the pretentiousness that goes with it. This is a common theme in fiction, both in novels and the big screen. While all fiction is rooted in reality somewhere, this novel will be totally fiction, but set in the reality of my boyhood world.

My metaphor for how authentic we are, is a 100-story building. If you were part of my blogging back in the “Christian Monist” days, you may have heard me describe this before. In this metaphor, the ground level is reality, that is where the thoughts that we have in our heart of hearts, our secret places resides. Virtually no one lives at this level, certainly not me. The authentic people inhabit the first 20 or so floors. Then the pretentious live in the 30 to 70 floors, and the avatars above that. Again, which I will write about later, I consider the avatars as so disconnected to who they really are that they even fool themselves. But the most distant we are to reality, the higher up in the building our public life resides.

I think that there are two major factors in determining where one lives their public life in this building of pretentiousness. One has to do with our upbringing. I had a relative who married a very pretentious woman and their children became exactly the same way. I am thankful that my mother was a very authentic woman and that influenced me at an early age. It caused me to at least notice pretentiousness and to resist it, however, I would be pretentious to say I was successful in that resistance.

The second factor, the one I want to focus on today, is what I will label the “Critical Habitat.” That term means something entirely different when we talk about ecosystems in nature. In this case, I’m talking about the critical eye of our social environment. The more critical they are of our behavior, the more pretentious we tend to be. Pretentiousness has plenty of room to grow, especially, if that Critical Habitat places the bar of accepted behavior far above what we mere mortals can achieve. In that case, we have no choice, if we want to function in that society, but become pretentious. I was in a subculture like that once and got out because I could not stand the pretentiousness of it any longer. But that took a lot of courage. When you leave any social group, especially one that is built on strong ideologies, it is hell getting out.

I am an intensely curious person. Questions slog through my mind in a constant parade. Questions about society has always been one of those themes for me. I grew up in the south, in the Bible belt. I spent 1/3 of my life there, and the later 2/3rds in a midwest culture. I use the term “midwest” broadly, as some sociologist considers the Pacific Northwest as part of the Midwest culture. There is a historical reason for that. When the Alaskan Gold Rush happened in 1896, the easiest way for people to get to Seattle, the launching point for Alaska, was the Northern Pacific Railway, from St. Paul to Tacoma. So, there was a huge migration of midwesterners into the Pacific Northwest at that time.

From my observations and thought, I have concluded that there is a big difference between how people in the south, especially the Bible Belt deal with secrets and being pretentious as compared to the Midwest. I could write pages about this. But, without trying to say one is better than the other, which is not my point, I’ve concluded that simply people in the Midwest (a gross generalization) take secrets more seriously than those in the south.

If you had an uncle who had sired many children by women other than his wife, that secret would be buried forever in the family vault of a midwesterner. Shameful. However, in the south, that information would become somewhat of a family joke. While no one would say anything about this uncle’s infidelity to him or his family, if they were in the other room, you would not be surprised to hear it snickered over a sink of dirty dishes. I mentioned last time the man Jack, who was our Baptist church’s resident pedophile. People snickered about his all the time, behind his back. But it was tragic. I hope it would be different today.

I have a theory, and I could be wrong, how the south developed this sense of indifference toward dark secrets.

The Victorian age of Protestantism in England came across the pond and went to seed in America’s south as the Bible Belt in the 1800s. This came about by the influence of fiery horseback revivalists. In their strong language these revivalists demanded a more perfect Christian society, much like what the Victorians were attempting to do in England. But the problem, it created one of these “Critical Habitats” where the expectation of the general Christian society was set higher than mere mortals could achieve. For this reason, they had no choice, if they wanted to be respected in that society, but to become pretentious. You pretend that you never drink alcohol, while you have bottles hidden in your basement. You pretend that you are giving most of your money to the church, while you are giving a small percentage. You pretend that you never “cuss” while you do in the privacy of your home if you strike your thumb with a hammer. You pretend you love church music, even though you hate it. You pretend that you marry as virgins, when less than 50% did (during those days). Before long, pretending becomes the major feature of your life.

Over time, this level of pretentiousness became so pervasive that it started to become a joke. Woven deep in the Southern culture is both a level of authenticity as well as a layer of pretentiousness. Dolly Parton (who grew up near where I lived) is an iconic example of this attitude. If you listen to her talk, she is a deeply authentic woman. That is what people love about her. Yet, as a paradox, I don’t if she has any body parts that are still original.

If you look at some of the TV evangelists, you will see the same. A persona that is so over-the-top that it is a joke, yet they are taken seriously enough that a lot of people send them monthly checks.

In my metaphor of the 100 story building, religious people and people in the public eye (politicians and celebrities) tend to live toward the top. These groups live in the world of the greatest scrutiny, or Critical Habitat, where expectations are beyond reality.

Where am I going with this? I am not writing this to criticise any one group. If anything, I hope that you and I can spend more time thinking about our level of authenticity. I think we are healthier and society is healthier the more we are bathed in reality. If anything, I think we should lower our critical eyes. I often write to lower the bar of expectations to reality. Like when I wrote about profanity, or times I’ve written about the virtue of doubt and uncertainity.

I may be back with more on this topic or move on. But I hope you have a great holidays.

Other News:

My cancer is still in deep remission, for which I am profoundly grateful. I will have my next labs on Jan. 4th. However, this chemo program is still kicking my butt. I feel exhausted all the time and feel tremendously guilty about that.

I am not having much pain right now. I had a lot of nerve pain for about two years, but that as abated.

Still a hermit. I was hoping to graduate from being a hermit as the COVID rate improved. However, my immune system has been devastated by this chemo (per the lab work up). I had a bad case of pneumonia in August and have been fighting a bronchitis for the past month which has been toying with becoming pneumonia. I had my first IG-IV infusions this week to try and build up my immunities. So, I’m still in isolation as much as I ever was. It is what it is and I have to accept that.

The Stones of Yemen is almost finished the proofreading process. I’m growing more confident that you will see it in bookstores by the end of January.

Thanks for your love and support.

Mike

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