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Martha's big adventure -
Peeling back the layers

The older we get, the harder it can be to remember what matters most about ourselves. We've been divided into the cool kids and the not-so-hot enough times that, if we've finally earned a cool title, we'd like you to know about it early.

Then, everything else you find out is filtered through the one or two impressive items. Our age, our weight, our recent divorce may all get a pass because, well, we're special. Impressing the neighbors or the guys at work can take on a little too much significance.

I'm guilty of it as well. There has been an incident or two, mostly involving getting a better seat on a plane or standing in front of a single-straight-male-in-my-age-range where I let it be known that I'm a nationally syndicated columnist. That's when I'm confusing what I do for who I am, and hoping no one else notices. It's also a sad little indicator that I'm not feeling too keen about my chances based on first impressions.

A great way to figure out if the labels matter more to you than the substance is to watch how many times you lead in a conversation with the fun facts that get the best response. Maybe it's the ones where you get to show off just how much you know, and can impress the room with your intelligence.

Or, it's an exciting story where you took a big chance and most everyone else would have chickened out. Did I mention I went skydiving a couple of weeks ago? I could milk that one for months.

It's awfully tempting in new situations to blurt out the good stuff rather than let people get to know who we are slowly. Letting things happen naturally would require us to be OK with some people taking a pass on getting to know us better. Plus, we'd have to feel good about who we are in any given situation. Not what we're doing or know how to do, just OK with our integrity, which is defined as the state of being whole, entire or undiminished.

However, put in enough time talking about all the great things you do and it can be tough to remember just who we are as whole and undiminished human beings. That's going to require peeling back some layers.

I'm not going to pull out the peeling onion metaphor because I've never liked the idea that when you're done, there's only a smaller onion. Instead, picture a room with beautiful wood paneling. Not the 1970's kind of paneling that was overwhelming, but something that made people ooh and ah and took their breath away the first time they got a really good look.

Over the years, there's been a lot of wallpaper plastered over that rare wood. Some of the wallpaper was expensive and beautiful, some of it was flocked, but none of it was our foundation. It was all window dressing. Put up enough layers, though and it can be tough to remember with any accuracy what we're like at our core.

Getting back to the basics is going to require some observation and a little quiet time around others. Instead of offering information, just be present and listen. Try responding to any questions without the adjectives and with as much honesty as you can muster. Not self pity, which is any kind of complaining. It astounds me how often someone uses that as their label.

We're talking about honesty without the self-criticism. Respond with small statements of fact that don't add in words or tone to manipulate the kind of reaction someone will give back to us.

The payoff is that the people who stick around lack drama and like us for who we are and not what we can do for them. Judgment falls away and instead of an inner dialogue about all the parts of ourselves we don't like, there's a calm. We start to make different choices based on seeing ourselves as already whole. That's when it becomes easier to maintain our own definition of integrity. More adventures to follow.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at Martha@caglecartoons.com.