I’ve spent my entire life at war with myself. It’s exhausting.
This isn’t a conflict most people recognize. I don’t blame them, though, because I lived with the conflict for decades without understanding this war within. My nature pushed me in one direction, but my childhood programming pushed me in another. Instead of choosing between them, I tried to have one foot on each side.
I wanted to be perfect. I tried to be competent, logical, driven, faultless, charming and well-adjusted. But something inside pushed me to be creative, brilliant, mercurial, iconoclastic and eccentric. I didn’t understand the natural tradeoffs of life.
When I was growing up, my father told me I was just like him. For a long time, I believed him. I tried to emulate him. Through constant self-discipline, I played the role he dictated for me. I loathed the part of myself that was more like my mother. I suppressed it. I denied it. I ignored it.
But I’ll never be what he wanted me to be. I know how to act that role. I can fake it. But on the inside, I’m the eccentric creative type struggling to get past the conventional mask I wear for the world.
I’m still trying to come to terms with the tradeoffs that come with being who I really am. It’s almost as though the ghosts of my dead parents are still fighting inside me — each trying to shape me in different ways.
I grew up with my father making fun of my mother behind her back. He was embarrassed that she could be a free spirit. He didn’t like it that she could have child-like fun when he expected stony-faced seriousness. And he belittled her desire to be create art as an amateur.
He never said any of these things to her, but his children heard them constantly. For some reason, I remember one story that he told many times, because he seemed sure that it proved that my mother was crazy.
He was transferred by his company to Knoxville, Tenn., in the summer after I finished first grade in Atlanta. When we went to look at the house we were going to rent, my mother was delighted with the huge back yard, so she excitedly took my very young sisters by the hands and ran with them out into the yard. She was running around with her squealing little girls, showing them how much fun it was going to be to live here.
In my father’s version of the story, she was a childish maniac running off — “skipping around the back yard,” as he put it — while a real estate agent was still showing features of the house. He wanted my mother to put on a serious face and listen to a discussion of the appliances or insulation or whatever else he was selling.
My mother didn’t care. She had already seen what she cared about — and she was far more concerned with living in the moment with her daughters.
How did it really happen? I was there, but my memory has been so clouded by his ridicule that it’s hard to be sure. I suspect Mother had heard all she cared about — and she was instinctively interested in showing her daughters how fun this new adventure could be.
Who was right? Does it matter? Most people would be more like my father. They would listen intently to whatever the agent was saying. They would have acted completely serious the whole time. They would have been socially “normal.”
But if I had a mother act that way with her daughters today at a house I showed them, I would be delighted. It would make me happy to see a loving mother and happy daughters getting to know the place I was showing them. I’d wait for them to have some fun and then get back to whatever we needed to talk about.
I understand now that there’s nothing wrong with my father’s way, but there’s also nothing wrong with my mother’s way. They’re just different. My father was eager to say that anything was wrong if it wasn’t his way, especially back in those days.
People who are too “normal” — who are more like my father in every way — aren’t as interesting to me. The people I tend to be most strongly drawn toward are extremists of one sort or another. People who have hidden “flaws” that most don’t even see. My father wanted us to be as much like his idea of “normal” as was possible. I tried for many years to be that person — but I’m not one of them.
I’m an eccentric. An iconoclast. A weirdo. Someone who listens to some internal voice and follows that call instead of emulating the norm.
Yes, I look like a conformist on the outside. It’s a useful package. It makes it easier to get along in the world. In the same way that my mother would put on a nice dress and go teach school when she needed to, I can put on my tie and go into the world looking like a conventional businessman.
But there are tradeoffs in what I am. I didn’t realize that for years. I finally accepted that there are tradeoffs for everybody, whether I like it or not.
If you happen to have a high IQ, you’re not like others on the inside, no matter how hard you want to be. (Depending on the test, I score between 155 and 165, but I’ve gotten to the point that I refuse to take IQ tests anymore.) If you happen to experience creative energy that pushes you to make things, you pay a price in being different from the norm in yet other ways, for good or bad. Whatever you are which is at one extreme, you give up something on the other end — and that is almost impossible to explain to people who are so much like the norm.
For me, depression has never been some chemical imbalance. Depression has always come from trying to be somebody I wasn’t. When I am able to live as I really am — with someone close to me who understands what I am — I feel exhilaration. When I’m having to live around people who don’t understand me and work at a “normal” job with normal people in a normal environment, I feel boxed in — and I become depressed.
I don’t think my mother was crazy. Not anymore. I think she was just an eccentric free spirit who didn’t want to be the sort of “normal” which my father insisted that she become. And I’m a lot like her.
I live a very conservative lifestyle, far more consecrative than most. I like it that way. But on the inside, I’m liberal and eccentric and wildly experimental — when it comes to ideas and emotions and new ways of looking at the world.
I’ve live all my life with this horrible war between these parts of myself. The conflict has almost destroyed me at times. But I’m trying to integrate the two parts — trying to become an emotionally healthy and balanced whole.
I’m grateful that I learned how to act my way through the normal world. That’s useful at times. You can drop me into a social or business setting and I can fake my way through whatever I need to get through. That came from my father.
But I’m also grateful for the Bohemian weirdo dreamer who’s inside. That’s what allows me to create. That’s what allows me to feel alive. That’s what allows me to know how to love and cherish those people and things which matter to me. That came from my mother.
I need to be able to live in “the real me” more often and more consistently. Not only is that when I’m the happiest, but it’s also when I’m the most loving — and it’s also when I am the most valuable in the economic sense.
When I move through the world — especially in business — I’ll continue to act the part of a conservative businessman most of the time. But don’t be surprised one of these days if I take the hand of my future child and go running through a back yard with joy and delight instead.