Being Yourself

Very recently, I was at a party having a lively conversation with a retired lawyer. Although not bragging, he made it clear that he was successful. He was a partner in Roy Cohn’s firm who handled celebrities and politicians. His father was a famous doctor and he recalled his father getting middle-of-the night phone calls from FDR and Babe Ruth. In our dialogue, I made it equally clear that my father was a truck driver who quit school in the 6th grade and that I grew up in the Southeast Bronx.

Later, in discussing this dialogue with Marilyn, my wife, I reminisced how, as a college freshman, I dreaded a dialogue with offspring of rich parents and how, after agonizing over this, I decided, when the dreaded topic came up, I would say my father was “a professional driver.” I recalled the feeling of anxiety about having pretensions exposed. It was more important to me to impress people than to be comfortable with myself. I gave that up as a sophomore and consequently became much more comfortable being myself.

Some 30 years ago at St. Charles Hospital, Eleanor Clark and I started a group for parents and children with epilepsy. At the first meeting, most of the parents couldn’t get themselves to use the word “epilepsy.” Some were told by their neurologist not to use the word because it was pejorative. After we went around and introduced ourselves, several members said they had never used the term and were relieved to share experiences with others. They learned that perfectly decent people had epilepsy. Perhaps the most dramatic case was a 14 year old girl, Claudia, with uncontrolled motor seizures. She had several per week in class and revealed that her classmates teased her and called her “Ep.” She initially resisted when the group and I advised her to explain her seizures to her classmates. Claudia came in the next month glowing. She reported that, after a seizure, she went before the class and told them that she had psychomotor epilepsy and although she is taking medication, her brain discharges electrical signals that trigger uncontrolled seizures. She reported that other kids came up to her and offered help and encouragement. There were no further reports of teasing once Claudia was out of the closet. She was more comfortable with herself and people were more comfortable with her.

In a similar way, we are watching gays come out of the closet. Many are in agony that their “deep, dark, dirty” secret will be discovered. Tom, a Mormon gay dentist, revealed to me the agony he was in while he was in the closet. The Mormons do not accept homosexuality. Initially, he tried the Latter-Day Saints’ reprogramming sessions, but it was of no avail. Finally, when forced to choose between his church and himself, he came out of the closet and opened up. Tom, with anxiety, revealed his sexual identity to his nephews and nieces, and was delighted when they all accepted him. He was even surprised when they said they had surmised and accepted his homosexuality for years. The gay pride movement indicates a large cultural shift that allows gays to be much more comfortable with themselves and significantly reduces personal suffering.

Yet there are many people who make themselves victims of pretensions. Sally has constant fights with her husband, Steve, over money. She “needs” a Mercedes and a Rolex watch. Although Steve has a good business, he doesn’t make enough to satisfy Sally’s need to impress people. We all know people burdened with debt because they spend more to create an illusory image rather than be comfortable with themselves. They “need” designer clothes, expensive cars and sunglasses carrying advertisements. Why? Because they have not learned to accept the limitations that all people have.
Unlike Sally, now divorced, Claudia, Tom and I became more comfortable with people when we didn’t have to pretend. We accepted the truth, and also, accepted ourselves.