I don’t know if writing a blog will be cathartic or not – after all it’s not much fun putting your opinions out there in the public if you have as thin a skin as I. But when you are alone the need to express yourself, to rationalise the way you feel, to tell someone – even if you don’t expect anyone to read it – becomes more overwhelming than ever before.
People that choose a singular and isolated existence must have something extraordinary, a way to gain strength that doesn’t require interaction, approval, disproval, or even acknowledgement from others. I don’t think I have that skill, but five weeks in the U.S. amongst over-achieving, extremely assertive American’s will test me to no end. I may end up curled in the foetal position under a bed somewhere, or in a wardrobe being comforted by the dust bunnies, only to be dragged kicking and screaming back to reality. Of course, another alternative is that I consume, by osmosis, the something in the air that makes many American’s just that way, and come back strong, assertive and with pearly white teeth.
But somehow, I think the assertiveness is just as much a façade as some of the beautiful buildings in Capitol Hill. Scratch the surface and you will find assertiveness as a camouflage that masks deep insecurities, and sometimes dark imaginings, that affect everyone in this society. Some of these insecurities come from gender – witness the hyper-adrenalised women in Washington, carefully coiffured, in their haute-couture suits, shoulders padded out, showing deference to womanhood only in their choice of high heels, or their sharply defined, too-bright, and slightly bemusing lipstick. Or race – witness the black or Hispanic shop assistant’s deference – years of prejudice rolled up in a cool assertiveness designed to defend against attacks, serving you coldly but engaging in small talk, warm talk, with their fellow suffering co-workers. The military personnel – uniforms expressing externally set of goals and attitudes, but masking the person inside, so all you see is a walking shell. Stereotypes I know, but to the casual observer, it’s difficult to move past the stereotypes when no one looks you in the eye as they walk hurriedly by.
For the dark underbelly, you only need to watch American TV for five minutes to see how this assertiveness is gained at the misfortune and ridicule of others. Feeling shit about your life? Try watching a reality show about a repossession agent as he repossesses a car from a female teenager driver, leaving her retching on the side of the road, stranded with her friends, sobbing desperately in her despair as he bemoans the fact that the girl had vomited on his shorts. Or there is always “Rehab” which prescribes watching wretched people undergoing withdrawl from drug dependency, as a way to entertain ourselves and unwind from the travails of our day. Let's define our success by defining someone else's failures - adding to our assertiveness because ‘that’s not me’.
So what does all this mean for me? As I contemplate going to a conference tomorrow full of accomplished, strong people, some of who will conform to these stereotypes, and others who, hopefully, will not – will I take the simple advice that my mum gave to me when I was five and try to imagine them in their underwear – not real underwear, like you might imagine Pat Cash in, but long pants with buttons like on a Disney caricature from my childhood?
It will take some gymnastics – I will be jumping over mental hurdles like an Olympic champion. I’ve never been any good at masks, except when they were provided for me in the guise of a police uniform. It was a relief when I took that mask off and, thankfully, eventually, after years of exposure to real people, I regained my humanity. But while I have never actively looked for a replacement mask, maybe my self-effacing is one that I didn’t realise that I had actually bought. I think it might be time to throw that thing into the lifeline bin and stop hiding behind it – it doesn’t work for me anymore.