I hadn’t read a word of Whitman as a teenager, and wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to follow his example and defiantly embrace my contradictions if I had. Here is an excerpt from my memoir Good Enough?, about the confusion and terror of trying to “become an adult” while in college. I was certain I was the only person in the world broken enough to feel this way. Maybe I was wrong . . . If you felt the same way, I’d love to hear your story!
My greatest fear during my college years, besides that I was a horrible person who was failing in my life, was that I was utterly transparent to everyone around me. I was unable to interpret myself – my contradictions overwhelmed me. I had no idea what to do with all of that chaotic energy.
As a teenager, I presented myself one way to my friends at school, another way at church, and another way at home. Describing myself, I always felt like an unreliable narrator – I couldn’t reconcile the intense contradictions in my heart. I was stubborn and fiercely independent. At the same time, there was nothing I found more soothing and reassuring than feeling completely obedient to God. I was an unmotivated and lackadaisical student with a sharp and hungry mind.
College, I thought, was the time to become an adult, to integrate my disparate selves into one coherent whole. I thought that adults were relatively straightforward, homogeneous beings who weren’t surprised by themselves. I was becoming an adult. Shouldn’t I be able to map my essence, my impulses, my personality, my values and my desires on a tidy map the size of the Isle of Wight? I tried, but it was impossible.
To not know and contain my whole self put me in constant fear of being exposed. What would I do if people discovered this secret, debilitating weakness? I seemed to be the only one with this inexplicable flaw, although I never had the courage to test that assumption by asking anyone.
Someone would say, “You’re really [fill in the blank]” and I’d get thrown for a loop, frantic to integrate this new information about myself that must be true because someone saw it. If what Stuart said was true, then what I thought about myself must not be true. How could Stuart know more about me than I knew about myself? That seemed impossible. But I couldn’t discount what Stuart said, because he observed me from outside. He saw things I could not. Every time someone said, “You’re really. . .” I felt like a blind person being forced to sew together a patchwork quilt made of fabric brought to me by other people.
What I did not know then was that the map large enough to have contained the vast contradictions in my nature would have been the size of the Mongol empire. It took me more than 30 years to embrace the contradictions that demanded to be recognized as essential parts of me.