I have this friend who has always told stories that sound too big to be real. Big fish tales. I’ve told him that sometimes, I wonder if he is a pathological liar. But I’ve recognized that he has a big life, bigger than most. And the general gist of his stories are believable, knowing him at least. The details feel exaggerated. But after a lot of talking recently, I think it’s actually the parts he leaves out that have bothered me the most. He always comes out the hero in all his stories. And deep down, subconsciously, this reminded me of my dad.
My dad didn’t just tell Big Fish stories. From the time I was able to understand words, he’d been telling me outrageous stories that I believed until I realized years later that they weren’t real. This included telling me that my real mother was a cow named Horace who lived in our attic. Or that people died on the ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Disney during the ride while we were there for real. It just so happened the ride did close that year. He told my brother that the dinosaurs at Disney would eat boys if they didn’t give them M&M’s. Ridiculous stories. No child 5 or above would believe them. But we were young enough that we believed every word out of our parents’ mouth must be true. They were invincible.
My dad was a big jokester. The people in my family love him for his wry sense of humor. But what he thought was funny with us became an entire distrust by the time I was old enough to see through his lies and stories. Because he never said they were lies, I never knew what to believe as the stories became more and more plausible. And so I came into all of them believing they were false, even the true ones. He would get frustrated with me for not believing the true ones, but what was I to do? Trusting someone’s words – especially his- really mattered to me. And he had broken that.
And eventually, the stories became stories about real life. Stories to cover up the truth. For instance, making us believe he was working for a full year remotely when he had actually been laid off for that time period, looking for a job. Or not sharing with us that we were going to move until after he had already bought a house in another state. Or hiding from us that he might have thyroid cancer. After the last one, I told him “No more secrets. No more stories. We can’t support each other as a family or trust each other without the truth. Hiding it does not protect us; it makes walls.” He said yes, that he promised to keep no more secrets. And yet, a year later, he tells us he had lost his job again but didn’t share this until he’d made himself another solid job – in another state. He and my mom had already sold the house and “Oh, by the way, get your stuff out. We’re minimizing.” The walls I had up about not trusting him had been reinforced.
And so, I promised to live my life, at least, without secrets. I realized secrets and stories that hid the truth were always uncovered and their power only had power because of them being hidden. Protecting others with dishonesty and omission was not protecting them at all. I chose to live my life with entire vulnerability. No big fish stories. And I was free.
But it has led to other costs in my life. I realized *I* am entirely honest. But I can’t control other people. And so I distrust them. Because the messages they and I got from the world (or at least the world in my head) encourages “white lies,” false truths, omissions to “protect” others from hurt feelings and pain. The world tells us to wear a mask to show others and to swallow who we are deep down. To hide our “failures” and expand on our successes. To look super human. And inside, to feel like shit, to feel alone, to feel broken. And it prevents us from seeing that our “failures” are really just successes of trying and that if we don’t “fail,” we won’t succeed. It prevents us from seeing that everyone is looking, hoping, praying for deep connection because we’re all busy pretending we can do it all alone, don’t need anyone, and especially don’t need support or love from others. We think people want this – the mask. But they’re just wearing one too. And when you take yours off, you’ll likely find others are more than happy to shed theirs too.
Our strengths as humans are what society tells us are our “weaknesses.”
Christmas is coming and you’ll begin hearing those songs telling us we “better not cry, we better not pout” or we will get coal in our stockings.
If it’s your party, you can “cry if [you] want to”, but “big girls don’t cry.”
If you’re in the military, you can have powerful shared experiences that are traumatic and no one else understands outside of your buddies, but don’t go talking to them about it or becoming emotional. And god no, don’t have sex with them if you feel close. And when you come back to the “real world,” don’t tell anyone. No one will understand. They’ll think you’re crazy. Close off that part of you. Lock it with a key.
Our strengths are in being human. Our strengths lie in having hearts that feel, bodies that experience pleasure and pain and accomplish amazing things, and brains that can process extraordinary amounts of information on a daily basis. We can think about thinking. We can experience others’ experiences through the telling of their stories via mirror neurons. We can learn through others’ experiences and our own. We are not perfect; we keep improving. How many animals can do this?
And yet, we stuff it down. The humanness. The us-ness. The you- and me-ness. The differences and the similarities. The pain, the hardship, the moments of love, the moments of despair, the rawness of real life. Sex. Passion. Homelessness. Suicidal thoughts. Having $5 left in your pocket and nothing left. We cover it up with talking about things, actions, processes, superficialities. We tell everyone “fine” when they ask “how are you?” when inside, nothing is fine at all. And when someone tells us a hard truth about ourselves, we make up stories for why they are wrong. We ghost on them to avoid the truth and confrontation.
Until we are almost gone. On our deathbed. When the superficiality no longer exists. When life is coming full circle to death and one begins looking back, not forward. When we realize time is limited. When we realize what we wanted more of was taking off our masks, to stop trying to be super human, and to just…be human. To have more moments of crying, smiling, laughing, and feeling. To be who we are: ephemeral, beautiful, powerful humans.
Don’t stop being human. Take off your mask. Others will too. I promise.