What we pretend to be, we accidentally become -- even if we don't intend it.
When I arrived at an Ivy League school from my home in the heart of the Midwest, the ways of New England were new to me. I hadn’t yet learned how to “dress Ivy” and went on a crash course. I threw away all my socks and learned to wear loafers in the casual devil-may-care old money style. I bought a navy blazer and studied the careless manner in which my professors stuffed silk pocket squares into theirs. The patterns always clashed with the shirt. In classes, I was introduced to all sorts of new, intellectual ideas and ways of thinking that I’d never encountered before. I had to adjust to these ideas and learn how respond to them and incorporate them into my way of thinking. I’d never consumed a martini but quickly learned how to order them as if I’d been drinking them for years. I started eating raw oysters.
It was a heady time. If you’ve ever had this experience of re-inventing yourself, you know how enjoyable it can be to challenge yourself and grow. At first, it’s very much like pretending. I’m sure that, as a rash young man, I took it too far into pretension and outright fraud about who I really was, but in the right way and to the right degree there’s a lot to be said for going through these growth experiences, even though they feel awkward.
Sometimes we need to try out new expressions of our identity, otherwise we stagnate. Some phases we go through fit us well, while others are quietly discarded. (Don’t ask me about my teenage years and the punk band I was in.)
Eventually, those new college habits became part of who I am. I now regularly and unironically wear shoes without socks. It’s become so habitual I don’t even think about it. Now that I’m back in the Midwest, it’s become a permanent mark of my eccentricity, but I just can’t bring myself to wear socks again.
We’re all experts at pretending. In some ways, adults are even more committed to pretending than children. Children clearly delineate between real and make-believe. Adults, however, are far less sophisticated. What we pretend to be, we accidentally become — even if we don’t intend for this to happen. That’s why we must be careful about the game we’re playing and think carefully about who were are who we want to become.
What I mean is that, often we have an ideal image of ourselves in our minds, one that we’re striving to achieve. There’s a long way to go, but through an act of the will, a person can, over time, truly grow to match that image. My goal in college was to learn how to dress and present myself like an adult. Over time, after acting and dressing like a grown-up, I actually did grow up. The goal, that future self that is envisioned, is truly already present in the form of a seed that can be nurtured.
To this day, I still have goals. I want to be a better Catholic. I want to be a person who naturally and joyfully prays. I want to be more patient with my children and a more attentive father. Even when I don’t feel like it, I act as if I am already those things. I try to be patient with my children even though, inside, I feel impatient. I try to pray with joy even though I’m struggling to maintain focus. Over time, I’ve found that it becomes easier and eventually I fall into the habit and become what for so long I have sought.
St. Clare, whose feast day is this week, puts it beautifully:
“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing.”
If we desire to live a beautiful life, to achieve our ideal vision of who we might be, we begin by surrounding ourselves with beauty and goodness, by spending time with people who are worthy of our attention. We are formed by our surroundings – the friends we admire, the books we read, the music we listen to, the food we eat, the television we watch. Spend time around people who will lift you up, who are kind, thoughtful, and inspire you to imitate them.
Our loves say a lot about who we are, and eventually our loves transform us. Be careful what you love.