Monthly Archives: January 2016

Impostor

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare said in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players.”  Maybe this explains why many of us feel like impostors.   We may master the lingo, wear the uniform, even get the degree, but there’s always this feeling of looking over our shoulder, waiting for the men in black to bust in and rip off our disguise:  “Aha!  Just who do you think you are?”  Back in the late 70’s, a pair of psychologists actually coined the term “impostor syndrome,” a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.  Despite external evidence of competence, about 70% of us,  particularly high-achieving women, remain convinced we are phonies.

In my first class in grad school, I remember looking around the conference table at my classmates, all of whom seemed intellectually superior, able to discuss literary theory as easily as last night’s sitcom.  I did a lot of nodding and concurring, mastered pensive expressions, and all but took up pipe smoking in an effort to seem up to par.  What I failed to realize is that half of them were doing the same thing.

Martha Beck recounts a fantastic anecdote in her book Expecting Adam.  As a PhD student at Harvard, the bastion of intelligence, she once stopped in a friend’s lab and watched her performing a psychology experiment on some rats, monitoring them as they swam in a kiddie pool –a Smurf kiddie pool.   When she gets to her next class a little late, she apologizes, “I’m sorry.  I was in the Psych lab, watching rats swim around in a Smurf pool.”  Not to be outdone by her, the instructor, a fellow student, and a visiting dignitary all pompously pipe up:  “How’s Smurf’s work going?”  “I read his last article.”  “He’s had some remarkable findings.”   The important thing–more important than being smart–is the prestige bestowed by appearing smart.

I once presented a paper to a room full of scientists at an environmental conference in Rome, Italy.  I’d done the research, written the report, and polished the presentation until I could field any question, despite having had not one chemistry class in college.  For twenty minutes at least, I was the expert and knew the material better than anyone else in the room.  I would have been much more comfortable talking about themes in 18th century novels, but that wasn’t my job.  Sheer fakery.  But it worked out.  I met some interesting people, and the research was well-received.  I felt a little like Leo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can.  Just carry a clipboard and you’re automatically in.

The other day my son questioned another parent’s behavior.  I told him that she’d never had a teenaged son before and was just doing the best she could.  No one gets a step-by-step manual for every parenting situation.  At times, we are all flying by the seat of our pants.  I remember leaving the hospital with my firstborn, flabbergasted that these people  would just give her to us.  Clearly, we were unprepared.  Obviously, we had no idea what we were doing.   I spent most of my kids’ childhoods feeling like an impostor, amazed that The Experts weren’t bursting in with video footage, eager to point to all the evidence of my screw-ups, mistakes, and fodder for their future therapy.

I toppled off the lofty parent pedestal a long time ago.  My offspring are (all too) aware I’m not perfect and sometimes making it up as I go.  Here’s the secret:  we all are!  We are all first-time, amateur humans winging it.  No one is an expert, even if they’re carrying the clipboard.   Fortunately, that allows for lots of teaching moments on forgiveness, grace, and how we learn from mistakes.

Unfortunately, feeling like a phony tends to limit the risks we’re willing to take.  We’re so worried about being unveiled that we pull back–from opportunities, relationships, or dreams.  If we are trapped by the “appear competent at all costs” lie,  we keep our challenges–and consequently our victories–small.

Doesn’t it get tiring, this rationed life?   So many of us arehorse on the bit reined in, our potential and gifts spring-tight and begging for release, but we tiptoe obediently to avoid appearing foolish.   A grace-filled life is abundant, not careful.   We all have symphonies in us, waiting to be heard.  How can we muffle the music because we might look silly?  Disrobe, unmask, and go take a dip in the Smurf pool.

 

Next

It’s the second day of January.  The carpet is still full of fallen pine needles, a straggler Christmas card just arrived in the mail, and the Christmas clearance section at Target is best described as “there appears to have been a struggle.”   Two aisles over, cascades of pink and red hearts festoon the shelves.  Valentine’s Day is 6 weeks away, yet the decor screams, “Let’s MOVE, people!”

2016 has barely begun and I’m already feeling the push of what’s next, hearing the faint scritch, scritch of anxiety scratching to be let in.  Not this year.  The 40’s have been described as the rush hour of life.  We are busy with careers, tugged between growing children and aging parents, spread thin trying to maintain marriages, friendships, and waistlines.  We run the treadmill, literally and figuratively, dealing with life in broad shallow strokes with little time to stop and dive deep.

My word for this year is savor.   On Christmas morning, my sister’s family wakes gradually, enjoys a nice breakfast, and then opens presents one by one throughout the day.  It’s not unusual for me to call late in the afternoon to wish them a Merry Christmas, asking if the kids liked what we sent.  “Oh, we haven’t gotten to them yet!” she’ll say.  “It’s not even dinner time!”  I’m incredulous.  At my house, we wake early, pillage the stockings, and whip through the bounty like Tasmanian devils.  We are usually napping again shortly after lunch from the exhaustion of it all.   This year, we reined in the frenzy and took our time, pausing to watch the pouring rain as it flooded the yard.   It was a welcome change.

Maybe it’s a symptom of unfettered youth, this rushing on to what’s next.  My ambitious and eager college student daughter is not even halfway through a semester before she’s planning the next.  Every step is planned and scheduled, from semesters abroad to internships that may lead to post-graduation employment.   She focuses on what’s around the corner, imagining life will be more exciting, stable, or less stressful when—.   I tell her to slow down and enjoy where she is, but the truth is a couple of misty decades ago I did the same.   I couldn’t wait to be an adult, unleashed and independent.  I would have adventures and embark on a life that was, above all, interesting, the opposite of ordinary and everything I imagined my mother’s was.   Life would start to be grand when I graduated, got a job, got married, once we had children, once they were out of diapers, once the business took off, once…

Now, a little further down the road, I see.  The ordinary minutes of the ordinary days and years have blown by, consumed by something like 27,000 meals, 4,000 loads of laundry, and 14,000 diaper changes.  Wiping the counters, feeding the pets, filling the gas tank, helping with school projects, taxiing to and from practices, church services, and friends’ houses.    Teaching the littles how to write their names, ride a bike, drive.  Reading The Seven Silly Eaters for the 85th time, wiping tears from scraped knees and broken hearts, gritting my teeth from a slammed door or the virtual door of headphones and a cellphone.  Beach sand in our shoes, doctor visits, braces, and pet burials.  Ordinary days.  Not quite the world-changing adventure I’d imagined at 20, but an adventure, I think, just the same.

Truly, some of those days it was a struggle just to make it to the other side of morning.  Many of them I wished for what was next because stories and diapers and teenaged angst were sometimes, honestly, less than riveting.  Naptime, bedtime, date night.   Now I just wish my mother were still here so I could tell her I get it.  This is the adventureThis is the interesting.  This was it all along.  The sticky kisses, unshaven husband, car trouble, health scares, and bounced checks.  Even the frustrations, hurry, and hurt.  This is what my mother and my sweet friends who have left too soon no longer get to savor.  This is what they clung so hard to and fought to stay for.

Savor means to taste and enjoy completely, which can only be done without hurry, without looking to the next bite before finishing the first.   Always looking for what’s next, what we imagine to be our sav-i-or, reverses the natural order of things.  It makes the foreground, the background, and we miss the gift of what’s now.  If we deliberately, on purpose, slow down and take the “i” out of the equation, the “I” that worries and chafes, we are left with savor.

I no longer seek the elusive unicorn of what’s next, or better, or more exciting around the corner.  Bob Marley’s “Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be Alright” is my current theme song.  It’s the second day of January.  Forget that vague holiday in February and enjoy today.   May 2016 unveil your ordinary.