She had taken the wrong brush in her agitation at Mr. Ramsey’s presence, and her easel, rammed into the earth so nervously, was at the wrong angle. And now that she had put that right, and in so doing had subdued the impertinences and irrelevances that plucked her attention and made her remember how she was such and such a person, had such and such relations to people, she took her hand and raised her brush. – To the Lighthouse
Up until just a few years ago I was gripped with fierce anxiety when going new places. One particular instance I remember from undergrad was an interview I had for a service trip that was in an office I didn’t know well on the second floor of McElroy. I ate lunch on that floor almost every day, but the fact that I didn’t know exactly where this room was made me so nervous that I almost scrapped the whole plan of going on a service trip.
It was worse when I was a kid. Nothing terrified me more than going to a friend’s house – that moment of ringing the doorbell for the first time was overwhelming: what if a less-than-friendly sibling answered the door? What if I had the time wrong? What if I had the wrong address?? My heart is pounding just remembering it.
I knew I couldn’t spend my life too scared to go new places. So I learned how to burst into a room.
Last weekend I subbed at a new church. Luckily I had been in the facility before, so the old terror didn’t play into it. But like any new gig, anywhere, there was a lot to get used to, and I put pressure on myself to know exactly what was coming and to make it look easy. Over the years I have learned a million different liturgical signals – nods, gestures and ritardandos; the lavabo and the number of ciboria on the altar. My eyes are peeled for all of the signs, and I search for them as if they were my only defense against chaos – and sometimes they are.
People tell me that I am easy to work with, or that I am spontaneous, and the truth is I am neither of those things, I have just learned how to fake it.
Like a lot of undergrads reading Virginia Woolf for the first time I related way too much to Lily Briscoe, and a recent re-reading of To the Lighthouse merely ratified that inclination. Of all the passages about her that have stuck with me, the most powerful is not any of the most oft-quoted, but the one above. How lovely it would be to forget that I was such and such a person.
With each year that goes by, how many of us get trapped by “the kind of person that we are”? I am the kind of person who snaps at people, who doesn’t get enough rest, who smothers negative emotions in work, who distracts herself with productivity, who doesn’t need people. Does saying I am that “kind of person”, assuming it into my identity, make those habits any more healthy?
There’s more to me than being such and such a person, or having such and such relations to people. I say I am not spontaneous but I’ve learned to be, I say I hate surprises but I’ve learned to anticipate them and to roll with it. I say I hate new environments but I’ve bullied myself into dealing with them. When does what we do begin to defy who we are?
We all have treasures inside ourselves that defy the habits we are in, but uncovering them comes at a cost, as it means unraveling all the tidy little bows on the boxes we’ve put ourselves in. It would be so safe to stay who I am – predictable in my carefully cultivated unpredictability – but even as I write I have visions of lids flying off of boxes and unimagined wonders spilling out, and I have the holiday memory of the joy of a living room filled with the messy remnants of the things we’ve boxed up.