All Things to All People

There are times when it seems I have two personalities. Or rather, that I have two categories in which to place any number of personalities. This is, in some ways, fortunate, in that I adjust easily to new situations. I can be “all things to all people,” but unlike St. Paul, it is not (I am ashamed to admit) “so that I may be all means save some.”

I like to think that this changeability is related to my career as a professor and teacher of English. It is true that being quickly and easily able to code switch[1] has its benefits. I am extremely efficient at assessing a situation, quickly understanding from whence my audience is coming, and ascertaining how best to influence, help and teach them. And this is, in fact, true. However, as with most things we “like to think” about ourselves, it has a darker side–the bits we don’t showcase but are endlessly troubled by. And the truth is two-fold: 1) I cannot abide being wrong, and 2) I long to be above reproach.

No one likes being wrong, certainly. We strive to be right and it is good that we should do so. But striving to be right is not the same thing as doing contorted acrobatics in order to make what may have been wrong look as though, in a certain light, it is right. Knowing how to turn words around and upside down, knowing how to play rhetoric like a fiddle, knowing how to switch sides in mid-argument and turn someone’s own ammunition against them are all fine qualities that I happily turn to poor uses. I was once called on this maneuver by another academic who claimed I “stretched the word so far that all the meaning fell out.” And of course, the energy I spend defending wrong as right could be saved altogether if I admitted the wrong and started over. Strangely, people are very obliging when you admit your wrong—you would think we had every reason to be honest.

But, of course, such an admission of wrong would be well beneath my dignity…

…And I do hope the sarcasm is plain here. I am trying, with some acidity, to poke fun at myself. Unfortunately, this is not really laughable (in fact, most sarcasm isn’t). Reproach is a sting I almost cannot bear—for better or worse, I always imagine correction from others as a kind of “laughing up the sleeve.” A sneer, perhaps. I noticed it first when I was a child. There are many occasions when a parent, a teacher, or an older child cannot help but chuckle at the mistakes of a young one. I had a terrible experience once of mistaking the pronunciation of harbinger (hahr-bin-jer) . I knew the meaning—a herald or sorts—but in my eagerness to use it, I said out loud and in company that I just hated to be a “hair-banger of doom.” Even the most well-meaning persons could not help laughing at such a gaff. It is, of course, far worse if the laughter is not well-meaning, when it comes from sneering peers and patronizing superiors.

Indeed, I almost think I’d rather be slapped, trodden upon, struck, stuck or shot than laughed at. A sneer is a greater wound than any other to me. And I have learned how to be very agile at avoiding those barbs, by hook and crook. I hate sarcasm in most forms, but I am obscenely good at it myself. I have learned that, if I am careful of my verbiage, tone and body language, I can almost make black into white. An example: Should I perhaps let fall to some fellow academic that I am a Christian—and suddenly find I am the butt of a joke—I am able in very few words to reduce what seemed like an unequivocal statement to a series of qualified moral platitudes. And, while I am at it, I will turn their joke around and revisit it on their heads: “Are you so closed minded to assume that anyone who calls herself a Christian believes in creeds and dogmas? I thought you were more creative than that.”

There are two real problems with this. The first is that, in fact, I do believe in creeds and dogmas. The second is that I haven’t evaded the barb so much as deflected it (and those things can ricochet most terribly—they always must be deflected again and again.) So now, in my desire to avoid being laughed at, I have actually said what is wrong in order to appear more right. And that returns me to those two categories—to the boxes of personalities I have been carting around my brain. In the first box, I keep the self that does in fact believe. This self in all its forms speaks regularly to God, firmly believes in Christ and the incarnation, readily and hungrily consumes apologetics and theology of various stripes from MacDonald to Lewis to Merton. In the second box is my set of academic masks, and generally speaking these are set up on a continuum from  truth-seeking “spiritual” to something more like a basic moralism. And I actually have no truck with either, since both tend to annoy me on the grounds that they have you talking round and round without saying much. But masks are scary things. As in the children’s story, wear one too long and your face takes the shape.

And now we come round full circle: being “all things to all people” doesn’t save us anything, but it might lose us to ourselves. These split personalities—all of them (even the better-self ones) are constructions. None of them are real. And as a result of living in so many skins, we can forget what it is that we actually believe. I myself am so full of qualifiers that I find myself forgetful of the very basic things of Christianity—not the fluff, not the trappings, not the un-useful dogmatisms—but the basics like 1) there is a particular God with particular plans for us and 2) there is a Christ, God’s son, whose sacrifice (not just the dying bit, but the living…living among us, of all creatures) was the only thing that could reconcile us with our creator, and 3) we don’t really understand it all and don’t need to—but we do need to be obedient to what we already understand.

 –And sadly, even now, in writing this, I cannot shake the voices of my imagined audiences demanding that I extrapolate and qualify, that I prove or make manifest, that I lay before them just how, in this day and age and with this amount of education, I can believe in any of these things… (C.S. Lewis says this with better grace in Mere Christianity)–

 But I digress. The point I am making is this: we cannot leave ourselves in twain. We cannot be of two minds about everything all the time—it is too exhausting. I am an academic…and I am a Christian. I’m in good company, actually, since C. S. Lewis and most of the others I have mentioned were also academics.  But I need to be like them; I am not to wear either identity as a mask, or a coat to be hung upon a nail at the end of the day. I am to be, not to seem. I am to be a Christian, knowing that the word will bring unpleasant connotations to many and that I will have to do much explaining and see much sneering. I am to be an academic unafraid of honest inquiry and careful that my well-learned rhetoric is as ethical as it is useful (following the example I teach my own students). That is the way, and incidentally, the Way is the original word for Christianity. Not a thing, but a process. Not a label, but a path. Go this way—go. Do. Be. Simple, or would be, could I get out of my head now and again.


[1] The term used to describe the way we can speak one way to our peers, another way to our superiors, yet another way to our parents or children, lovers and spouses.

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One thought on “All Things to All People

  1. Interesting. I struggle with a lot of the same things, as I go through classes (though, I’m not an academic but a student) is it wrong to misrepresent myself for the grade? Just because I see things a certain way, does that mean I shouldn’t represent my viewpoint differently?

    I hate to “think of myself” as lying but it isn’t materially different from being dishonest.

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