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Monday, October 19, 2015

Why I Don't Know What I Am Talking About

When I was a kid, almost all of the grown-ups I knew were total pros.  At being grown-up, I mean.  My parents, my grandparents, most of my Aunts and Uncles (sorry, Uncle Pat) were just very polished, reassuring, well-formed adults.  I felt confident that they both knew what they were talking about and also knew how to take care of things. 

They solved problems and fixed what was broken with deft assurance; they meted out approval and punishment with a fair and even hand.  In short, they REALLY seemed like they knew what they were doing virtually all the time.  They made me feel safe and relatively care-free.  What did I have to worry about?  The grown-ups would take care of EVERYTHING. 

But now that I am a grown-up I find that more often than not when people are looking to me for answers or to take care of something, I just want to throw my hands up and run screaming from the room.  Or go into a whole “Are you lookin’ at ME?” routine.  Because now that I am the grown-up, most of the time the only thing I feel totally confident in is the fact that I don’t know what I am talking about.

I remember so vividly my mother telling me when my Grandfather died, “You don’t really become a grown-up until you lose a parent.”  At the time I couldn’t understand what she meant, especially as she was the hyper-competent parent of 4 kids, and was even a grandparent herself!  But what she said stuck in my head and came back around when my own father died. 

It’s true; as long as your parents are alive there is some part of your brain that defers to them.  Also that same part of your brain counts on them to figure things out when you just can’t even.  “I’ll ask Mom and Dad, they will know what to do” is the subtext of your life, so you never really feel like you are 100% operating on your own steam.  At least I didn’t. 

Now that I know I am definitely the one in charge, I find myself compartmentalizing the things I feel I CAN handle and the things I feel 100% certain I am whiffing entirely.  Some things, like doing our taxes, cause me to compartmentalize so much that I enter a sort of fugue state of denial.  Every year when the dust settles and I realize I have actually managed to file the taxes ON TIME again, I feel jubilation.  But never confidence that NEXT year it will be a breeze.
I am a person well-known for my ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, any time.  Seriously, I practically get into conversations with strangers while we are sitting in traffic together—“Sir, if you could just roll down your window for a moment…?”  But this should not fool you into thinking that I know what I am talking about. 

In spite of my gift of gab I have come to accept that most of the time I will have little to no recollection of what I said, just what the OTHER person said.  Yes, I am clinically curious.  But I am also hopeful that you DO know what you are talking about; I will ask questions until you walk away or take out a restraining order. 

So the other day I was picking up my son at his new school and all the other parents were kind of congregated in a courtyard chatting away and all I could think was “They really look like they know what they are talking about.”  Of course they all know each other and I am the newbie, but for a moment I felt like a child again in a world of mysterious, competent adults.  THEY all know what they are doing while I am just winging it and hoping for the best.  I didn’t get out of the car.

One of the many things I admire about my young son is that he is absolutely at home in himself.  I do think this is partly a function of being an only child—no siblings to torment, tease and undermine him—but it is also quite naturally who he is.  Even when other children have teased him, he just didn’t get it. 

One day when he was a toddler, we were at the park and he was trying to engage two much older boys in play; they were having none of it, and invented a game called “Keep away from the monster” with my baby in the role of monster.  But he just kept chasing after them yelling, “Guys!  Guys…I’m not really a monster!”  Eventually he wore them down and they played with him. His lack of shame, his confidence to pursue what interests him is awe-inspiring.  Some days I think he is a better grown-up at 10 then I will ever be.  But he has a tool in his arsenal that most of us lose as we age:  the unabashed ability to say “I don’t know”.
I think this may be what it boils down to, in fact.  When we are children we are not expected to know everything or to be able to do everything, so we are free to admit ignorance and ask for help or more information.  But slowly, as we grow, we experience more feedback of the “you figure it out yourself” or “I can’t believe you don’t know that” ilk.  So we become ASHAMED of not knowing.  We fake it, or just don’t say anything…our natural curiosity gets squashed; avoiding embarrassment becomes more important than knowing the answers. 

I’m always amazed at how children will tackle new crafts and projects with gusto—it never occurs to them that they don’t actually know what they are doing and we all have the hilarious and endearing arts and crafts “fails” on our mantle to prove it.   Children are always proud of their creations because they were conceived with enthusiasm.  As adults we have a hard time embracing any new thing or situation where we don’t feel we have a kind of mastery.  We carefully construct a life to hide or minimize our “deficits” while highlighting our strengths.  We shut down to possibilities because to embrace them we would have to risk looking foolish or worse yet, FAILING.

Alice Walker has the best quote on this topic:  “People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.”  I love this because it makes me feel like all of my blabbering and clownish flailing is perhaps a righteous path after all.  That my willingness to admit that I don’t know what I am talking about might actually be a strength? 

I have for years announced to anyone who would listen that I have embraced my mediocrities and feel my life is much the better for it.  While my parents were omnipotent, indefatigable gods to me, my son laughs riotously at my sometimes short fuse and has asked me on numerous occasions in the car, “Mom are you lost?  Again?” 

Yes, baby…I am lost.  Again.  And not for the last time, either.  But if you always know where you are going, haven’t you lost a piece of yourself?  The adventurer, the explorer, the seeker who does not have all the answers but is open to the new, the different, and challenges?  So don’t ever be fooled:  I am not a professional grown-up, despite any appearance to the contrary.

Then again, maybe more people feel the same way that I do than they care to admit?  But probably not, because I don’t know what I am talking about.

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