Lately I’ve been turning over the idea of fallibility, and how little we like to admit it. It’s a new sensation for me, thinking that fallibility might be an admirable quality instead of a weak one. At some point in my adolescence, maybe even my childhood, I absorbed an idea that I need to never show softness or indecision when out in public. (Which is odd, because I whine like heck in private, and there are also social pressures for women — and Asian women especially — to present themselves as less self-assured than they actually are. But today we’re staying on the confident side of self-presentation.) I distinctly remember sitting on the grey vinyl floor of a hallway in Dwinelle, during college, facing a younger classmate as she sat in the same position on the opposite wall. We were waiting for a professor during office hours. I remember telling her that presentation is everything, that it’s so important to appear confident at all times. She said I did it really well; she didn’t realize I ever had any self-doubts.
For a really long time, maybe most of my life, I yearned to be a grown-up. About a month ago I was at our climbing gym, watching a boy trying to engage with his early-thirties dad and his dad’s friends, and he was saying all the wrong things. One of the dad’s friends fell off the boulder from about four feet. No harm done; it’s a natural part of learning a route. But the boy gasped and asked with concern, “Are you okay?” Everyone ignored him. The boy then announced, reaching into his backpack, “By the way, if anyone gets hurt, I have [unintelligible] in here.” I felt rather than saw the grown-up climbers roll their eyes and think, “What a pest.” But he didn’t mean to be a pest; he was mirroring the way grown-ups talk to him, and hoping this would gain him entry into their society. He was the only kid in the gym on this Friday morning, and the grown-ups didn’t want him. I watched his efforts and remembered my own, similar, and wondered if it’s an oldest-child thing. We long for company, but not having other kids around, we try our best to be as grownup as we can, so the grownups will welcome us as one of their own. Impossible, of course, but a kid can’t know that, and so he keeps trying. When I was a kid I wanted to be a teenager, and once I was a teenager I wanted to be in college, and in college I wanted to be like the grad students and professors I saw around me. I talked serious and dressed mature, and went to the symphony and to lectures and fancy restaurants. Above all, I wanted to appear grown-up to the grownups I aspired to be.
I don’t know when this changed, but these days, for the first time in my life I have a lot of friends who are younger than I am as well as friends who are older. I’m learning how to dress my age, which is shockingly difficult — most of my clothes would also be appropriate for a 60-year-old. Partly I chalk it up to emotional maturity, acceptance of uncertainty and beginnerhood, and not needing so badly anymore to fit in with “grownups.” But it must also be that I’m now 29 and realizing the rapid shrinkage of years before I’ll be considered an adult by all and sundry. In other words, I’ve spent most of my life pretending to be an adult, but pretty soon it’ll be impossible to pretend anything but. I’ll be old to many and still young to most, but I won’t be a kid anymore. A lot of people are terrified of aging, but my sighs are of relief. Finally, I can stop trying so hard to look and act older, and just be the way I am.
Feeling this, feeling cozy with myself at 29, I can look back and see how much energy I put into building up my costume of perfect competence. It makes me want to shake those masks from everyone else as well. Why should we always pretend we know everything? Why do we expect the same from others? Obviously, there are situations where it’s not helpful for people to come straight out admitting fallibility (physicians and military leaders come to mind, as well as anyone pitching new projects to financial backers), but even then, I’d prefer ex post facto admissions of error rather than blustering attempts to hide mistakes at all costs. Who’s not human? Who’s not swayed by emotion and experience, afraid and embarrassed and anxious? We’ve all got something writhing in the abyss.
It strikes me as I write this that it sounds like I’m encouraging us all to make mistakes and let others do the same, on the grounds that we all deserve to let things go a bit. That’s not it. We’re all capable of excellence and we should strive for it: professionally, creatively, ethically. What I wish we’d do is stop overreaching. Stop talking big when we have no idea what we’re going on about. Don’t just go to pieces when we want to, but let the mask slip a little, enough to murmur, “Everything’s shaking and my heart won’t stop galloping. I’ll be okay — but hold my hand.”