There is this little thing David Sedaris wrote–the introduction to a collection of short stories–and in it he describes candidly and masterfully what it is to try to fit in and then to finally, after trying to be someone else, develop a confidence in his own opinion, which is what coming into ourselves is, if we boil it down.
It was in seventh grade that Sedaris’ teacher asked everyone what the best song on the Top 40 was and Sedaris raised his hand and said, “Indiana Wants Me.” The boy in front of him turned around, said he had to be kidding. Sedaris remembers, “the song satisfied me on every level, but if no one else liked it, I guessed that I didn’t, either.”
From this point on, whenever someone asked my opinion, I would turn the question around, and then proceed accordingly. If the person I was with loved game shows and Deep Purple, then so would I, and if I was caught contradicting myself–watching or listening to something I’d sworn to have hated–I would claim to be doing research, or to be enjoying the thing for its very badness. You could do this, I learned, and people would forgive you, consider you interesting, even. The downside was that it led to crummy gifts: Mitch Miller records, heads made from coconuts, campy stuff thought to be “a hoot,” or, if it was extra lame, “a hoot and a half.”
My own tastes I kept to myself, and in time, they became hazy.
When I read this, I thought about my freshman year of college, when I went to the basement of the Antiquarium (a bookstore I genuinely liked that smelled like weed with men sitting in worn easy chairs, talking about literature which you could hear from any corner of the shelves) in Omaha’s Old Market and bought a second-hand Incubus CD. I didn’t like Incubus, didn’t really like any rock, would have liked them even less had I known what “Incubus” meant, but my friend thought Brandon Boyd was the hottest, most talented person ever so I thought I would be cool to her by owning one of his albums.
For years, I shadowed my friends, sharing their tastes although I didn’t actually share them, I just wanted to be liked. It is hard for a home-schooled girl to acclimate to the world as a teenager, and an eagerness to please is the easiest way to become liked.
Sometimes we are chameleons, adapting to those around us, changing our colors to blend in.
But also, I knew what I did actually like. What, as Sedaris calls it, “affected me and caused me to see the world in a different way.”
Now, at 35, after many versions of myself that weren’t myself at all, I still have friends that like the same things I do. I have friends I share short stories with, stories I haven’t seen anything like that light my mind up, and sometimes they like the stories too. Sometimes they don’t. The difference is now we have gained confidence in our opinions; we are able to say unpopular things like, “Virginia Woolf is overrated.”
There is something about knowing unequivocally who you are by learning first who you are not that might be exactly what “coming of age” means. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says, “Lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most.”
I know some people don’t like people with opinions because they aren’t always eager to please. But those are the kinds of people I like the best. The ones who know what they like and what they don’t because they have outgrown the chameleon stage. The people who, as Sedaris writes, “can distinguish between what I enjoyed and what I thought I should enjoy.”
*Italicized quote from David Sedaris’ introduction to “Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules.”