Learning Who You Are

We reveal ourselves to ourselves by our actions more than our words. That is, if we choose to observe. Not all of us do and none of us look all the time. Instead, we disguise ourselves to ourselves, perhaps as much or more than we do with others.

Maya Angelou said, “When someone (else) shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Yet we often fail to accept the behavioral evidence of our essence. The reality is there, waiting in plain sight, waiting as long as we take.

A dream summoned such a truth-telling college moment not thought of in decades. My grandson’s recent fascination with battling dinosaurs served as a backdrop, too; the kind of metaphorical identification a man my age discovers in those extinct beasts.

Evanston, Illinois, around 1967.

My buddy Alan invited me to join him at a friend’s apartment. Alan knew M fairly well. The latter would create the circumstances for revelation.

He lived in a modest abode typical of university students. Unmatched furniture, well-worn area rugs, a clean but not spotless space. M, himself, was more imposing: perhaps six-feet-tall, strapping arms hanging from broad chest and shoulders. Overall an impression of hearty, radiating physical strength, but also apparent good cheer.

The clock did not threaten. No school the next day. The three of us laughed a lot and we drank. This small group formed a rough triangle sitting on the floor a few feet from each other.

I do not recall what brought me M’s displeasure. An idle comment? No matter, he was pissed. The M of robust build. The M who overmatched me by maybe 40 lbs. of muscle and loads of menacing intensity.

The formerly amiable fellow wanted my apology, demanded it.

I tried to explain what I meant by the unfortunate utterance, misaligned with the meaning M took from my words.

M insisted again, fueled by his liberal ingestion of alcohol, he more than me.

I repeated the attempt to find the right nuance, the right cover; terms reflective of what I intended, not what he understood from my language. Back and forth, back and forth we went.

M warned of the cost of my continued failure to give him satisfaction. My teeth were now in danger of disassembly, rearrangement, and extraction by a non-licensed dentist of sorts — who was out of sorts. A man whose fisted hands resembled mallet heads, like crude surgical instruments powered by entwined steel cables extending from his shoulders.

Now you recognize why my grandson’s recent fascination with smashing toy dinosaurs together evoked this memory.

Being a reasonable young man, knowing myself no match for M in brawn and recklessness, you might imagine I capitulated: gave him the confession he stipulated in whatever words the bloke preferred.

You’d think so.

I didn’t.

I could tell you my intransigence was a matter of pure principle, since I want to think myself a principled person.

I could say I was brave, but a lofty philosophical stance and courage don’t explain my noncompliance.

Rather, I couldn’t do what he asked. It wasn’t in me.

This is the way I am made. I take no extravagant credit for it most of the time. It’s kind of similar to being almost 5’9″ — my height then and now — an unchangeable thing. Like the length of my human fabric, the behavior was fixed. I wasn’t made to apologize for a statement I didn’t regret.

If my child’s life were at risk, I’d have been flexible. My children were then not even a twinkle in my eye.

Fighting for a principle over nothing of importance is, I might argue, foolish. Masochistic, too. No careful reasoning prepared me for the moment, nor did time permit.

Longtime friends witnessed many changes in me, qualities I worked to alter, insecurities and fears among them. Not everything is amenable to transformation, however. In fairness, I never wished to lose the capacity just described once I found it. While this peculiar talent can manifest in the ill-advised form presented here, it appealed enough to my self-concept to retain it, consistent with who I wanted to be.

Thus, in a situation recommending a different way of being I revealed to myself who I was. But two other players took part in the drama, don’t forget. They also disclosed themselves, one in a manner far more commendable than anything I did or didn’t do.

Let’s go first to my antagonist, M. The host betrayed himself as a belligerent drunk. To fact-check this, a few days ago I talked with Alan (my companion in this adventure) and Harmon, someone who knew M longer than Alan; also a precious old friend to me, but not present at the drink-a-thon. By graduation neither one wanted anything to do with M because of his growing addiction and the anger it stoked.

On to Alan. The final member of our ill-matched triumvirate showed an admirable quality as rare as it was necessary to me.

As M’s rage moved toward climax, Alan said something to him designed to stay the impending explosion.

Alan was not M’s physical equal. Though the tallest fellow in the room, my friend is slight and unathletic; a man at home with books and Bach, not fist fights.

The back and forth shifted in Alan’s direction. At some point one of them hit the other, on the shoulder I’m guessing since I can no longer remember, and the other returned the blow.

To my surprise and relief the rising column of red in M’s eyes, like a thermometer’s mercury, started to fall. We left soon after, with all our body parts still attached. I’m pretty sure I thanked Alan as I drove him back to his place, but did so again this week. M could have dismantled him instead of me.

This comrade of more than 50-years told me he recalled feeling responsible for putting me in the situation. Not everyone risks his own body as he did.

Alan revealed himself.

Had my ally not intervened, whatever number of teeth I put under my pillow at day’s end would not have earned compensation from the Tooth Fairy.

She, I’m sure, doesn’t reward anyone of college age who should have known better.

——-

The top reproduction is Paul Klee’s The Bounds of Intellect. The next three are Egon Schiele’s Self-portrait (1916), the Seated Boy, and his Self-portrait in a Shirt. Finally, Paul Klee’s Battle Scene from the Comic, Fantastic Opera, “The Seafarer” and Joan Miro’s The Escape Ladder.