All you do is call meI'll be anything you need
—Peter Gabriel, "Sledgehammer"
If Jesus' alleged wife had asked him to grow a pair and come down off of that cross, what would he have done? What if she'd given him an ultimatum? "It's me or the salvation of humanity! What's it gonna be, Jesus?"
If Jesus' alleged wife had asked him to shave his back hair, what would he have done? (Would she have even had to ask?) What if she'd given him an ultimatum? "It's me or the back hair! What's it gonna be, Jesus?" (One wonders if John the Baptist faced such an ultimatum regarding his ridiculous camel skin attire, and chose the camel skin.)
If Jesus had been disgusted by his alleged wife's upper lip hair, would he have asked her to wax it? If not, would he have at least told her honestly how he felt about it? Or would he have silently, stoically tried to hold back his gag reflex? Or, would he have politely lied to her about it? Another possibility: would he have left her, feeling he could never love her as well as she deserved?
How much can we adapt ourselves for our loved ones, and how much can we ask of them? How much should we adapt ourselves to the general preferences of society? When does courtesy become phoniness? When is loving others untrue to ourselves?
My name is Gary. All my life, I've happily marched to the beat of my own drummer. I farm, I code, I play the trombone, I dwell in a tiny house, I poop in a five-gallon bucket, I burn my ballots, I play Dungeons and Dragons.
I attribute my lack of conformity to my parents and their unyielding universal acceptance of my siblings and I. I never felt like I had to adapt myself as a prerequisite to their love. I have only recently become aware of how much of a gift this is, and how many people in the world feel that their parents' approval hinges on behavior, academics, athletics, career, even physical appearance. I was able to walk away from a computer science degree (paid for largely by my parents) to the pauperish world of vegetable farming thinking only of what I wanted and what I believed in, never wondering for a second whether Mom and Dad would still love me or accept me.
Now, this wonderful gift has produced a few unfortunate side-effects. I am sometimes unaware of the ways in which I bother other people. I am incredibly honest, but sometimes utterly tactless. I am almost entirely shameless. And all my life I have been oblivious to fashion.
"How do people actually get married?" My friend and I ask each other this question yet again, as I peer with one eye open into my beer bottle, swishing its contents around. What we mean is, how do people start out with their makeup and expensive clothing and strutting and posturing and mind games and exaggerations and outright lies; their lists of pros and cons and must-haves and deal-breakers; and end up vowing to be devoted to each other in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, till death? At what point do the masks come off? I wonder, is it like ripping off a band aid? When do the beautiful people admit to each other that they sweat, and their farts smell, and their hair is not naturally that color? When does each stop trying to anticipate exactly what the other person wants to hear? Is there a tipping point when love grows from conditional to unconditional? If so, how? How could a relationship founded on pretense and shallowness ever eventually lead to unconditional love?
We can consider changes to ourselves to exist on a spectrum from shallow to deep. Shallow change is when we do things to please others (with varying degrees of grace or resentment, and varying degrees of honesty), while deep change is when we truly become something else to please others. To take a stereotypical example, a man might pick up his socks and put the toilet seat down throughout decades of marriage, solely to please his wife, despite never really giving a crap about the direct results of these actions. He might do so with honest resentment, private resentment and phony joy, or honest joy. He might do it on his own initiative, or only when asked. Maybe only when nagged.
Or maybe, after a few years of marriage, the man realizes that not having laundry all over the floor makes it easier to think clearly, and his begrudging willingness for his wife's sake gradually shifts into joy in the act by itself. Maybe then, when his wife passes away, he continues cleaning up his socks and putting the toilet seat down for the remainder of his life.
Ideally, the changes we make for loved ones would always take root. But this is the real world. Change can and does happen, but not as often or as easily as we'd hope.
In a world with no god, there's no such thing as unconditional love. It's a hoax. Who do you know who's really devoted unto death? Who do you know who wouldn't divorce a spouse who's turned into nothing but a burden, when the financial security and emotional compatibility and sexual satisfaction and narcissistic or co-narcissistic supply has dried up? Wedding vows and declarations of undying love are a thin veneer over the ugly truth: that love and devotion are really just negotiated security. It's a marketplace: you advertise what you've got, and you barter with someone else to get what they're offering. Couples, even friends, constantly adjust and renew their implicit contracts, and only as long as they continue to extract value from each other. We crave belonging, companionship, sex, successful offspring, economic security, affirmation, validation; and we willingly use each other to get them. It's not good. It's not evil. It's just the way things are, the way they always have been. Deal with it.
If you live in a world based on bartering, and you want to be involved with other humans, you'd better bring something to the table that others will value. You'd better use the currencies the locals are accepting. You'd better learn to adapt.
Adaptation is a spectrum. On one extreme, you've got the people-pleasers, the social chameleons, the performers. On the other, you've got the Henry David Thoreaus, who are not convincing anyone that some women find their neckbeards attractive. Do I want to end up living in a cabin in the woods, alone? Did I never think that making role models of the people who do might have undesired consequences?
I have a leopard-print shirt. It was handmade for me by a seamstress in Uganda. It's about six sizes too large. It makes my chest hair plainly visible. It's really comfortable. It has sentimental value. When I wear it, men compliment me. Women give me funny looks. Women who I am technically still dating at the time always give me the worst looks.
"Man, if I wasn't married, I'd go in a heartbeat," I heard over and over again before and after my bicycle tour around Lake Michigan. "Man, if I wasn't married, I'd build one of those in a heartbeat," I heard over and over as I designed and constructed my tiny house. "I used to do things like that," I hear all the time, "until I got married." Did I really think this truth would never come back to haunt me? Did I really think imagination and optimism alone could carry me up and away from the real world?
Has it ever occurred to you that looking good might be worthwhile for its own sake? Has it ever occurred to you that "playing the game" might, like many games, turn out to be fun?
I will be a secret agent for real love. I will infiltrate this sick system, and I will take it down from within.
I will dress the part. My clothing will be clean, sharp, sexy. Underneath it, my body will be sexier. I will be sculpted like an Olympian god. My manners will be suave; my moves, smooth; my credentials, impressive. I will become what you want to see and I will say what you want to hear. I will be hot. I will be cool. I will be mysterious. I will have a commanding presence, and I will be alluringly aloof. I will disarm you with kindness, and I will be mean enough to keep you interested.
For an experiment, and as part of a broader attempt to push the reset button on my confidence and motivation after four months of depression, I have begun making some changes, especially to my appearance:
- I'm wearing contact lenses. Now that I'm used to putting them in and taking them out, I find them more comfortable than glasses, and I look forward to an easier time with sunglasses, safety goggles, etc.
- I'm trimming my hair every few days to keep it at my optimal length of "fuzzy bald".
- I'm trimming my beard every few days to keep it at my optimal length of "just long enough to be soft".
- I'm shaving my neck more regularly.
- I'm pursuing dental implants to replace my wonky teeth much more seriously/aggressively than I have in the past. (There are other pressing, non-cosmetic reasons for this as well.) It remains to be seen how the cost/insurance will shake down — and if it will be affordable at all — but I am taking steps.
- I'm educating myself on basic men's fashion.
- I'm buying clothes that actually fit. (I still restrict myself to thrift stores, but I'm spending much more time checking myself out in the fitting room.)
- I'm learning how to iron.
- I'm working out thrice a week, doing squats, push-ups, crunches, and the like. Since I'm quite thin, the results are already noticeable. The increased size in my torso is more proportionate to my head and neck, and will make it easier to buy shirts that fit. The increasing roundness of my (formerly quite bony) shoulders and upper arms complements that of my bald head, and lends itself well to the "bald badass" look. The vigorous exercise is working wonders on the persistent dry cough I've had since early October. And most surprising, working out is actually kind of fun.
- I started shaving my back and shoulders. I invested in a very sophisticated apparatus (in layman's terms, "modified stick") to make reaching back there easier. I can't say for sure if it's what Jesus would do, but it's what I'm doing. I've also been trimming the rest of my body hair to more modest lengths — in case you were curious.
My time spent in front of mirrors has increased about fivefold. I'm looking more closely, too. Do I like what I see? I like my arms and my abs more, and my teeth less. On the average, I like it all about as much as I liked it before. And as before, it depends more than anything on the lighting.
Will looking more attractive in the world's eyes make me feel more lovable, less lovable, or neither? Supposing soul mates exist, will it make it easier or harder for mine to spot me in a crowd? Will I always wonder whether she only fell for me for my looks? After I've put a ring on her, will I stop trying and turn into a hairy, tanlined sack of bones? Or if I keep it up, will I eventually feel like I'm losing touch with my essential self? Will additional time in front of a mirror detract from nobler pursuits? Will increased confidence in my appearance help me, or turn me into a huge tool? Will turning a more discerning eye to myself cloud my ability to see the beauty in others? And is this really me now, or is it just something I wear?
Dude. Dude. Have you not read the parable of the talents? Have you never heard about the lamp on the lamp stand? No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket! Let it shine, dog! You know what's the real sin here? That for twenty-six years you've not been wearing jeans that accentuate that ass. You've been depriving the ladies of God's gift to the world! The real sin here is that you've been hiding your chiseled, muscley potential under all that bone and hair and farmer's tan and baggy clothing. You've been hiding that sexy badass bald head of yours under weeks or months of thinning hair. You've been hiding those eyes under a poorly-proportioned pair of glasses. Hide it under a bushel? Hell no! You gotta use your gifts, dude! The Good Lord says so. Look it up! "Thou shalt shake what thy momma gave thee!" Hesitations 3:16.
Oh... And if thy momma and thy daddy gave thee oligodontia, a condition resulting in fourteen missing permanent teeth, sunken cheeks, and an exaggerated chin... well... you should really do something about that.
"That doesn't sound very Gary-like," a friend told me last week. Well, guess what: Maybe Gary doesn't want to be Gary-like anymore. Maybe acting Gary-like, while having the desires of a normal person, put me on a collision course. Maybe there's a good reason it's called "Gary-like" and not "what everybody else does". Maybe I'm just a person, not a mascot, not the platonic ideal of noncomformity. And maybe the burden of being Gary-like in an un-Gary-like world is a little too much for the very real, very flawed person named Gary.
When intentionally pursued, the process of a shallow change turning into a deep change is often called "fake it till you make it". In my Psych 101 class we learned it was a good idea. In my experience, it only works in moderation.
Faking — in other words, setting your true feelings aside and acting counter to them — requires distancing one's self from one's own body and one's own visceral experience. If the end goal is to legitimately enjoy the thing you are for the time being pretending to enjoy, then you must still remain to some extent grounded in your body and the truth of your visceral experience. Otherwise, the desired change can never and will never take root, and eventually you'll know you're fakin' it, not really makin' it.
The other serious danger — which should be obvious given the word "fake" — is violating trust. Only with a solid foundation of honesty, renewed daily, can "fake it till you make it" work in a friendship or relationship. Otherwise it will almost certainly do more harm than good.
After several decades undercover, once I am certain I have secured your undying devotion, I will gradually reveal my true intentions. I will start farting in your presence. I will leave the safe containing my toiletries unlocked. I will ask you to help me shave my back hair. I will wear sweats and dingy, ill-fitting shirts. I will sometimes go two or three days without showering. When I don't look like a slob, I will look like a dweeb. I will talk about Dungeons and Dragons — sometimes in front of your friends or your parents. I will talk about my emotions and my insecurities — sometimes in front of your friends or your parents. And then I will ask you if after all these years you could somehow finally just love me for who I am, as I am; and I will cast aside my pretended aloofness and declare to you that all these years, I always loved you for who you were, as you were.
The big danger in changing yourself to please others (or asking someone else to do so) is that you might miss out on love entirely. Everyone wants to be appreciated and admired and affirmed for what's on the outside, but in the end, we want to be loved for who we are on the inside. Does this mean we should staunchly refuse to change, and demand that others take us or leave us? Or is changing for others a mercy, making it easier for them to love us? Is asking others to change cruel, or just an honest bearing of burdens? ("I'm only human, and I guess I need you to help me learn to love you. Would you... would you mind shaving your back hair?")
If it's at all possible in this world to approach unconditional love, then perhaps the only path leading toward that mountaintop is one leading through the foul swamp of conditional love. Perhaps accepting someone for all their flaws means embracing the mortal partiality of their love, and trying your best to meet its conditions. Perhaps only when such love is allowed to exist to its fullest extent can Christlike love begin to enter the imagination. Perhaps, like learning a language or learning to ride a bike, we can only get better at love by opening ourselves to the inevitable failures. Perhaps in refusing to partake in conditional love, we block both the love of others toward ourselves and of ourselves toward others.
Seeing as we're all humans here, stumbling down this road together, maybe it's okay to need a little help loving someone. Maybe it's okay to ask for it. Maybe it's okay to let others know, implicitly or explicitly, that it's okay for them to need it, that you're open to it. Maybe this can be my testimony.