Monday, October 26, 2009

I’m An Idiot

Years ago, in college, I overheard one side of an emotional telephone conversation while waiting my turn to use the pay phone in the dormitory:

“I’m not an idiot . . .”

“Okay, I am an idiot, but I’m not a complete idiot . . .”

“Okay, I’m a complete idiot, but I’m not a complete idiot all the time . . .”

“Okay, you’re right, but right now I need you to listen to me . . .”

The dialog has stuck with me all these years, and I feel like I’ve transcribed it here verbatim. I have a photographic memory of the look of mixed anger and anguish on his face. His voice was pinched with the effort to hang on to his composure, while slipping backwards through a desperate conversation. He made eye contact with me and tried to roll his eyes comically. It was a small act of bravado from the lip of a crumbling cliff.  The person on the other end of the line had carved out a smaller and smaller place upon which he could stand, leaving him fully exposed and pleading for help.

It was a moment of tragi-comedy or comedic tragedy, but he was a young man, still a teenager. Everything is tragic in a teenager’s life. The older I get, the more regularly I find myself in a position of having to acknowledge my own complete and utter idiocy, if only to myself, but it becomes a less and less tragic admission with each passing year.

I’m a grown man who walks around with paint in his hair. I’m a grown man who dances the Jump Jim Joe and the Mother Gooney Bird in public. I’m a grown man who presents himself wearing full body lycra spandex and a cape, even when it’s not Halloween.

I would call that being silly, but that would imply that I could at some point reel it back in. Like that teenager on the dorm pay phone, I often feel that I’ve been stripped of any pretense of dignity, exposed to all the world as an idiot. Unlike that teenager, however, I’ve learned a secret that makes it all bearable: I happen to know that you’re an idiot too!

Coming to grips with the idiotic core of our beings is the work of a lifetime. As idiotic as I appear today, there are deeper levels of idiocy to be revealed in years to come.

Young children are not idiots. They pick their noses, cry when they lose, indulge their fetishes, and pretend to be whatever they want to be without caring what the other people think. Idiocy is something we grow into, then learn to disguise in the garb of respectability. Some of us then carry it around like some horrible secret, living in fear that the others might somehow learn about it. Some people shove it so far down inside themselves that it becomes a toxic brew that inevitably erupts in acts of violence and self-hatred.

Preschoolers don’t spend energy worrying about how others will judge them, and on those rare occasions when I come across one who does, I know that an adult has really done a number on him. We’re not born fearing shame: if we did, we’d never attempt our first step or utter our first inarticulate words. Fearing shame is something we learn. It makes us hide those things about ourselves that we fear others will judge harshly, and by the same token it often causes us to judge others harshly for the very things we fear will be revealed about ourselves.

I don’t think it’s original to him, but Dr. Wayne Dyer was the first person I ever heard say, “What other people think about me is none of my business.” As a young adult, the idea sparked an epiphany. I thought it was something I could simply incorporate into my life. I was wrong about that: I’m still working on it.

That overheard telephone conversation has stuck with me over the years largely as a joke; a reminder of how desperately we try to keep from exposing the inner idiot that everyone knows is there, even if we’ve managed to hide the actual nose picking. But recently, when I think of it, I’ve become more interested in his plea: “I need you to listen to me.” He was stuck as long as he insisted that he was “not an idiot.” It was only when he admitted that he was “a complete idiot all the time” that he could ask for help.

I’m an idiot and no one, not even me, knows the full depths of my idiocy.

Actually, that’s not true. The children know, and they love me for it. And they love you for it too.

Bookmark and Share


Floor Pie said...

That phone conversation is like a very condensed version of John Gottman's marriage books. Good stuff...

Unknown said...

Socrates counted himself the wisest man in all of Athens because (so far as he could tell) he was the only one who recognized how little wisdom he had.

This message is old. It's at the heart of why I tought philosophy for a decade. If only more people had an opportunity to consider the limits of their own insights. ... And if you ascribe the same limitations to others as you do to yourself, it needn't be that scary.

Eternal Lizdom said...

Love this post, Tom!! I don't think I can go so far as to say I am an idiot, exactly. But I am definitely not one who tries to cover up my mistakes- heck, I blog about them for the world to see! I am honest with my kids when I make mistakes. And I won't call being goofy idiocy.

I feel like I have lots of thoughts mulling about from this post. Off to ruminate!!

PJ Mullen said...

We all have our moments of idiocy, some just hide it better than others. By and large I don't put much stock in what other people think of me because I'm secure in the knowledge of how my immediate family views me. It isn't always easy, but even when it does frustrate me, I tried to remind myself that at the end of that day what they think shouldn't bother me.

Unknown said...

Isn't it wonderful to know this? I love it. It is empowering. And very, very powerful!

Anna G said...

I am an idiot and also, a bufoon

Aunt Annie said...

Dammit Tom, you've revealed the secret of my easy connection to the kids to the Whole World! lol... They LOVE my idiocy. I am Proud Of My Idiocy. All I have to do at any moment of pre-shame is to remember the look of absolute delight on the face of one little boy, as I squeezed my own face into a crumpled mess between my hands and told him that he'd look like a sultana, like ME, if he didn't drink any water... mass hysteria... and lots of water drunk... we all need laughter! Idiocy rules!