The late Caroline Knapp wrote in her memoir Drinking: A Love Story that all her adult life she SEEMED very ‘smooth and ordered’ on the outside but in fact was ‘roiling and chaotic and desperately secretive underneath.”

Only ‘not noticeably, never noticeably’ she then added and these words struck me as so apt and oddly…. familiar they got me wondering how many others have felt just this way, maybe not the secretive part but the roiling-and-chaotic-on the-inside part.

I know I myself seem pretty ‘smooth and ordered’ on the outside. Once, when I brought a young person to look at a boarding school to which he was hoping to win a scholarship, the woman who interviewed him asked to speak to me separately afterward. We chatted about things generally and about this remarkable young man as well, and at the end she said, “I just feel as if I could talk to you all day! You’re so CALM!”

She evidently couldn’t hear the yips and barks and funhouse shrieks going on inside me.

You just don’t know what the inner reality of another person is; that’s why you can never judge.

A second, related interpretation of myself that I have been treated to involves the fact that I tend to walk around with a smile on my face.

“You’re always smiling at people! Why are you always smiling?” near strangers have said to me in random settings. Just out of the blue like that.  Not during any kind of conservation. Just in this pointed, halfway-nasty way as if what they were REALLY saying was, “How about I punch you in the face right now?”

Why do people come at each other this way? Are we hard-wired to harbor mistrust and judgment? Or is it that life here in Wild West America has brought out these qualities in us?

I’ve also noticed over the years that people who know you only a little often don’t like you that much, especially if you seem happy. It’s as if they think you stole their portion of happiness; that they could be a whole lot happier if  only YOU weren’t hoggin’ all the happiness for yourself.

When I was as a high school teacher, students who knew me only from seeing me in the corridors sometimes disliked me.  I know because they would tell me as much, after they had become my students.

But by then they were in my class, and wrapped in that warm blanket of niceness that all teachers are meant to wrap their pupils in, and their dark assessments had melted away.

I’ve finally figured out one thing by now: If I find a person hard to like it is always, always because there is something about them that I am not quite understanding yet. I know I will feel differently if I can just get to know them better.

As to the always-smiling-at-people part, I smile that way because my Aunt Grace smiled that way throughout a life that was far from easy.

I used to love walking down the street behind her, to see the effect she had on the people in her path.  Invariably, by the time she had passed them, they were smiling too.

So you can roil all you want on the inside or be baffled or gibbering like a chimp and nobody will necessarily know it. That’s one more nice thing the sainted Fred Rogers told his television audience of little ones: Other people really CAN’T read your thoughts and thank God for that, because as I write this I’m three hours late for breakfast and all I can think is “bacon-bacon-bacon” and “coffee-coffee-coffee.”

6 thoughts on “How We SEEM

  1. God bless you, Terry. You articulate it so well. We Americans have lost what money can’t buy as we have become cynical and “To Hell with you, I’ve got mine.” That’s why I love my Cuban friends so much and cherish their friendship; which is the only thing I have to give them.

  2. Reading this post was such a nice way to start my day.

    You hit the nail on the head with your insight about finding someone hard to like because there’s something not yet understood. It made me recall a time when I was at some sort of “self-actualization” workshop years ago. There was one exercise in which we were supposed to look directly into someone’s eyes, and I was so surprised when my mutual gazer confessed that from across the room he really hadn’t liked me. Me? I’m so mild-mannered…to myself. But on reflection I realized that I can look harshly school-marmish and pinch lipped when I’m anxiously taking things in. It was an insight that I’ve applied since then when I find myself making dark little judgements about people I don’t know.

    And I loved your reminder.

    1. ah I love the way you write Susanna: ‘harshly school-marmish and pinch lipped’. Also the ‘dark little judgments’.
      Mostly it’s lovely to get an echo if you know what I mean. Appreciate it so much ..

  3. We all harbor different personnas (personnae?), with a mask for each one, making it difficult to know ourselves as we really are. And we are bombarded with information each and every day, all of which adds to our life experience. We must be able to adapt – and smile a lot, whether we feel like it or not!

  4. I don’t know if it is proper to smile at children. They look so anxious when I do, probably because they have been told to beware of strangers. Do you think they will grow up retaining that fear, withdrawing from a smile, afraid, and turning away like a periwinkle heading back into his shell?

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