“You’ve certainly been happy,” the woman said. “I can always count on you to cheer me up. You seem like you haven’t got a care in the world.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. I was in the middle of a conversation with someone who I see a couple of times a week. She’s bright and mature enough — at least 50 years old — to have experienced a lot of life. She’s no dummy. As a restaurant owner, she deals with people constantly — and she knows me pretty well from our frequent conversations.
We had been talking about how it’s easy to tell how unhappy some people are. She chose me as the counter-example to make her point. She said I always seem especially happy.
“What makes you think you know me?!” I wanted to scream.
It was an oddly alienating moment for me Friday night when this happened. Instead of lashing out, I just asked why she thought what she did. Then I briefly told her I’m actually quite miserable lately.
She thought I was kidding, so I dropped it.
How well do other people read you? How well do you read other people? Are most of us walking around every day just as clueless about the people around us as my casual friend is about me?
I’m not really blaming this woman. It seems like a reflection of how disconnected we are from one another in an increasingly shallow culture — and it also seems like a pattern in me that I learned long ago.
A hundred years ago, humans dealt with far fewer people than we do today. We didn’t travel as far, so we were stuck dealing with the same group of people in a more in-depth way. We lived and worked and did everything around the same few people almost all the time. We had to get to know each other very well, because there was no escape from that small group.
Today, we’re around more and more people in our daily lives. We frequently drive a hundred miles or more a day, dealing with all sorts of people who we never would have met before the widespread adoption of cars. Our interactions with others are shallower, so it’s easy to project whatever we want people to see — if we care.
Whether I should or not, I do care what others see in me. It’s not a conscious thing, but I play a role every day. Just like almost everybody else, I’m running through social scripts everywhere I go — and I’m good at it.
You see, I feel guilty if people know I’m unhappy. I feel as though I’m supposed to play a role with every person I run into. I constantly feel as though the world is a stage and I’m an actor running through lines. A good actor doesn’t reflect what he feels. A good actor reflects what’s in the script he’s been given — and he gives the audience what it wants.
I present the same face to the world every day — at least to the casual observers around me in person. I don’t remember what it’s like to be able to be more honest with someone every day about what’s going on. That’s something I long for — not to be melancholy and miserable all the time, but to be able to share the reality of an emotionally volatile life with someone who cares.
I feel as though I do what the comic above depicts. I wake up knowing how I feel — knowing the dread and unhappiness and loneliness inside — and then I put on my “happy suit” before leaving the house.
It’s really easy to play this role. It’s easy because I have years of training and it’s easy because the world is set up in such a way to allow us to hide.
I’m glad I have this ability. It’s useful. Not everybody needs to know what’s going on with me emotionally all the time. So it’s convenient to laugh and smile and say all the right things.
But it can be lonely, too.
I miss having someone from whom I can’t hide. I miss having someone who knows when I’m running a social script and when I’m being real. I miss having someone who cares about the difference between the two — and who wants the part that’s real.
It’s easy to hide. Maybe you’re doing it, too. Maybe people think you’re happy. Maybe you fake it just as well as I do.
But you can’t do it forever. I can’t do it forever.
Everybody needs a place to hide from the world, where we can set aside our pride, where we can be real. That can’t happen without someone who loves us, understands us and who wants us to be real for them.
I don’t have that right now.
For now, I’ll keep putting on the suit of fake happiness before I venture into the world each day. Until I finally have someone who wants something more real from me, this is the best way I know to live — even if that means the people around me have no idea what’s going on in my head or heart.