It’s Okay to be Quiet

QuietMy entire adult life has been spent trying to adjust – to catch up – to a world I barely understand. I grew up in a small town, a place where everyone knew who you were – and everyone you were related to – before you even walked through the door. You didn’t have to introduce yourself, people already knew everything they needed to about you – and they either liked you are they didn’t based on who you were and what you were all about – in reality.

I grew up around farmers who barely spoke three words strung together – they were gruff and tough – but you just knew, deep down, that you could trust them with your life, they were straight shooters, no B.S., hard-working, God-fearing folks. People shook your hand and it was the truth, it was a done deal.

In a small town, the Culture of Character still exists. Where you are not judged based on your first impression, or your most recent comments, or if you said the “right thing” or if you said anything at all. People know you. They know what you’re about. They know if you are honest, or not. They know about your parents, grandparents, siblings – the good the bad and the ugly. Once you’re in, you’re in – for life. Who you are matters, not the “show” you put on to convince people of who you want them to think you are.

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. When we embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. – Susan Cain

The opposite is the Culture of Personality, this sausage maker we have all been forced into, this world that thrives on first impressions, Facebook status, resume building and a winning smile. No one knows US – the real us – because we are not allowed to be real. We are selling ourselves in every moment of everyday – whatever “role” we have created for ourselves must be maintained – at any cost. We cannot be complex, multifaceted human beings with a wide range of emotions, opinions, interests and needs. This is too difficult to regulate, control and market.

Americans found [find] themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers. “Citizens” morphed into “employees,” facing the question of how to make a good impression on people to whom they have no civic or family ties. Americans have responded to these pressures by trying to become salesmen who could sell not only their company’s latest gizmo but also themselves.
– Susan Cain

You must choose a box, usually during college, crawl inside and remain their permanently. Deviation could result in missed promotions, lost status and diminished prospects. So we all dream of “retirement,” the time when we believe we can really be ourselves – do what we really want to do and stop cowering before the powers that be.

Not likely. After a lifetime of submission, freedom cannot be resurrected. Freedom must be practiced. The Culture of Personality will persist in new ways. Our craving to belong, to fit in – those needs we have incubated since preschool – remain intact, stronger than ever and drive ever onward.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s just the way it is bub, get over it already.” Right you are. I am not so much longing for a return to my imagined utopia of small town U.S.A. as I am pointing out what has been lost. Americans tend to be “all in” kind of people – we do everything to the extreme – moderation and balance are not our strong suits. When a “new, latest, greatest solution” to any problem emerges, we go all in, tear down our existing structures, re-create ourselves and our organizations in this “new image” wait five years, get frustrated with the lack of results and do it all over again. (Think about “school reform” which has been occurring since the very first school was established).

Our problem is that we throw everything “old” out and accept everything “new” as better. We throw out many good ideas, practices and people in the process. The Culture of Personality is shallow, temporary, insecure and trendy. We need to “get rich quick” because we expect to be thrown out on our butts as soon as we get too “old,” start to wrinkle or lose our “network of connections” to retirement.

Who we are ceases to matter – who we appear to be is the driver of our destiny. Social media, anyone? This becomes a 24/7 responsibility, to decorate our box to attract others, never showing our real selves for fear of rejection.

So yes, I do miss being “known.” I miss knowing others – being able to dismiss a comment or act because I know the person at the core and could put every other interaction into that context. When people become “connections” they stop being people. People are complex. They fail. They screw up. They say inappropriate things. They age. None of which is allowed in the Culture of Personality, where your value is on what you can do, for me, today – yesterday is dead and gone.

Unfortunately, it is only in hindsight that we can see what we missed, how we screwed up and realize what we should have fought harder to preserve. As social media rages on – and we all sink deeper and deeper into the cocoons of our own design – I am desperately trying to see it before I lose it. See what? To see my life from the end, to value what will matter in hindsight, not what trends, ego or insecurity tell me to value today.

In the end, what really matters?

That is the ultimate question that every individual must ask and answer for themselves. When you take your last breath – a day that will arrive despite your futile efforts against “aging” – will you update your Facebook status (“dying, just taking last breath, not what I expected, SCARED!!! BTW, where is my family?”) Or will you hug your spouse and children, share tears of joy and gratitude for a life well lived?

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
– Matthew 7:24-27

Is a good life lived built on a foundation of character or of personality. Which is the rock and which is the sand? I think I know.

What you would choose at your last breath is what you should do now.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.