Finding a middle way

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Today I helped a guy jumpstart his car. He was standing outside the grocery store, in the middle of the road asking, “Am I invisible? I just need a jump.” When i pulled my car in next to his he told me that he’d been asking people to help him for 20 minutes. And, he kept saying, “I feel invisible.” I got the impression feeling invisible is a rare experience for him. He was incredulous. I did not say, “Sucks, doesn’t it?” But I thought it as loudly as I could.

Sometimes I think life is one long fight against invisibility. Along the way we develop a toolbox full of coping strategies and defense mechanisms. They work better or worse depending on the context. Standing in the middle of the parking lot hollering, “I just need a jump” is one strategy that worked today (eventually) for a frustrated guy.

As far back as I can remember I’ve sought the approval of others, another coping strategy in the search for visibility. If I was good enough, then maybe I would be seen. It was a productive strategy in some ways. I worked hard to be better and smarter. 

Seeking approval backfires though. Instead of being seen, I was cloaked in a functional invisibility. Teachers and parents and adults generally approve of little girls who are quiet, who take up less space, and have fewer needs, who are neither seen nor heard.

These same adults, however, give laser focused attention to loud, misbehaving, problem-causing kids. An in-your-face holler of “see me” works better than “don’t mind me, I’m just doing my homework quietly in the back of the room” if it’s attention you need.

When I was in eighth grade I threw a textbook at my math teacher. (I had my reasons.) I found out then what laser-focused attention felt like. I’ll admit that I sort of liked it. But the school counselor said the magic words, “Kerri, you’re so pretty and so smart. Why would you throw it all away?”

Seeking approval ended up being a keeper. I graduated high school with a 4.0. Out of a class of 750 or so, six of us had a perfect GPA. Needless to say I did not stand out.

The first adult who gave me permission to just be myself was my Western Civ professor. I majored in history because of him. He heard me, saw me, and challenged me. He told me once—in consolation for not getting an award—that his best students were his “B” students. 

He said, “I find you sitting under a tree reading and when I get closer I realize you’re not reading anything on the syllabus. You’re reading what you want to read.” (Sadly, I had been reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It could have been worse I guess, maybe The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.) 

The problems of living life in the hopes of gaining the approval of others are myriad. For one thing, approval is a moving target. There’s always someone better looking, smarter, funnier, wealthier, cooler than you. For another, most people aren’t paying close enough attention to approve or disapprove. 

Seeking approval by being a good girl and working hard haven’t really done much good for me. People don’t reward that behavior, but they do expect it. I’m not intending to sound bitter. I certainly don’t feel bitter. It’s just that I’m learning lately how a coping strategy I honed in childhood doesn’t serve me all that well as an adult.

As tempting as it might be, I’m also not going to stand in the middle of a parking lot hollering at passersby. 

There must be a middle way. Or several middle ways. Like arranging to meet a friend to talk. Like asking for what I need. Like accepting that I’m a “B” student sitting happily underneath a tree reading things that aren’t on the syllabus.

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