Last year, a teacher of mine taught an exercise he called “presenting your ego to a tree.” It goes like this, he said, you pick a tree, and you do your shtick, you know, whatever it is you do to present your persona or get attention. Then be quiet. Then say to the tree, what do you think? He said the first time he tried this, the tree replied, you think all that’s going to help you when you die?
This weekend, I met some new friends from a nearby small town. And I tried, really hard, to be who I am with no shtick. It was scary. It always is. I was minimally successful. The thing is, I’m good at shtick. Really good. Because I love experiencing new things and because I am continually putting myself in different situations, I have a wide variety of experiences and worldviews to draw from. And because I have spent so much of my life developing intuition and empathy, I usually know, very quickly, what’s being asked of me, whether it’s overt or not. So most of the time, my shtick involves hiding select pieces of who I am in favor of other, less threatening or more impressive pieces. My fears when I met these new friends? They will think I am overeducated, stuck up, too intellectual. They will think I have a lot of useless knowledge and no practical understanding. It will be completely obvious that, despite all my rigorous branching out in many directions, I am still very firmly rooted in my semi-urban, intellectual, liberal bubble. All of that might have been true. The fact is that’s all in my head, and I have no idea what they thought. I know they were nice people and that we all did what we could to bridge the gaps, connect and have fun together.
The paradox is that to understand where someone else is coming from, you have to know where you are. It requires an intense and unwavering kind of authenticity and a brutal honesty with self. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you have no ground on which to stand and from which to build a bridge to anyone else’s world. I am still working to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground and to allow other people to see exactly where I’m standing. Most days, that still feels pretty terrifying.