I had the misfortune today of seeing an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. It was an old one, and featured a mom who was two weeks post-partum being interviewed about her seven year old son, who is a pageant regular. While the seven year old bragged about how many super-special glitter-covered plastic Made in Taiwan trophies he’s won (he hasn’t yet noticed that he’s a shoo-in by virtue of being the only boy on stage), the mom held her bobble-headed infant son up to the camera and announced that he, too, would be in the upcoming pageant, because she wanted to “see if he has the same stage presence and interest in pageants” as his older brother.
A two week old infant — and this will not come as a shock to anyone who’s ever had one — has three interests only: eating, sleeping, and shitting. As for ‘stage presence,’ a stick of butter has the exact same amount of razzle dazzle. You could literally (LITERALLY!) put a vanilla pudding cup on stage, and it would exhibit an equal amount of interest in other people as a two week old human.
But I can’t come down on the delusional pageant mom for this too hard (although I certainly have some thoughts about teaching children that their worth is based on appearance) because, to some extent, we all do this every day: we craft a situation in our minds — whether it’s a relationship or a job or a project — and then are disappointed when reality and expectations don’t align.
I did this myself, earlier this summer. I had plans for my final residential semester of grad school, and then was thoroughly ticked off when walking pneumonia reared its ugly head and made me want to stay in bed approximately 22 of every 24 hours. I expended a lot of energy being disappointed, rather than just accepting that my body was trying to tell me to give it a break, and celebrating the fact that I still managed a few good days, a couple of social outings, and decent grades.
This is part of the human condition, though, isn’t it? We persist in thinking that we have complete agency in the way things will turn out — who our children will be, what our lives will look like, how our loved ones will act and how our careers will progress — rather than accepting that this is simply not the case. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try; obviously, there is a point to working towards your goals. But as REO Speedwagon taught us, you’ve got to learn to roll with the changes.
My yoga teacher, Susan, used to remind me all the time — as I grew increasingly exasperated with my inability to contort myself in the manner of a Twisted Monkey or Deranged Cow or whatever we were working on — that the whole point of yoga was to practice without attachment to the outcome. As I grew increasingly bratty (“I know I can do this perfectly, Susan, hang on, let me try it again – can you hold my leg behind my ear while I twist my spinal column into the letter Q?”), Susan would say, for the hundredth time that hour, that I needed to let go of the idea of success that I was carrying in my mind, and learn to be satisfied with my efforts.
(Susan, I’m coming back to yoga…just thought I’d warn you…)
But it’s not easy, and like most people, I’m easily annoyed by roadblocks, even though I can see, in other people’s lives, when those so-called roadblocks are actually beneficial detours and necessary pauses.
Today I hit SEND on my final seminar paper, the title of which was Beseeching the Ever-Capricious God: Sex, God, and The Salvific Aspect of Art in the Work of Tennessee Williams. (I’m hoping to get an A based strictly on that rad title.) In the paper, I quoted from a book by James Grissom that is based on interviews with Tennessee Williams back in the 1960s. In it, Williams spoke about the need for a “witness.” Here’s an excerpt, which I’ve condensed for you:
“I need to know that I mattered,” [Williams] told [Grissom]…“Surely, there must be others who can tell me that I mattered, that I was of some value.” Tennessee paused to cite, apparently from memory, two vituperative quotes from theater critics who had come to their separate conclusions that Tennessee Williams had never mattered; his work had been overrated; it was time to reevaluate him or discard him forever.
“One man felt it charitable,” he continued, “to assume that the real Tennessee Williams had died, and all of my later plays, my work of two decades, had been perpetuated by a clever epigone, a paid hack carrying on the industrial entity known as Tennessee Williams!” He laughed and hacked a bit, recovered, and muttered, using a term I hadn’t heard since childhood Sundays in revivals, “Good Lord, can I get a witness?”
“Do you need a witness?” [Grissom] asked.
“Here is the importance of bearing witness. We do not grow alone, talents do not prosper in a hothouse of ambition and neglect and hungry anger; love does not arrive by horseback or prayer or good intentions. We need the eyes, the arms, and the witness of others to grow, to know that we have existed, that we have mattered, that we have made our mark. And each of us has a distinct mark that colors our surroundings, that flavors the recipe of ‘experience’ in which we find ourselves; but we remain blind, without identity, until someone witnesses us…. How can we know that we have talent until our words or the manner in which we speak them moves someone? Makes them think outside the puny lines into which they’ve colored themselves? We can’t know that we have the power to break these lines apart with thought until we have our first witness, that person who tells us what we have done….I’m afraid that only in the company of these people, all of our witnesses, many of whom frighten us, can we learn who we are and what we’ve done.”
I agree with Williams that we all need to know that we matter, and that part of knowing this is having people in our lives who are witnesses to our existence, and to our efforts. The hard part is giving ourselves a break along the way, because too often, we’re our own harshest critics, and most damaging witnesses.
But hey…at least we’re not putting our two week olds in tuxedos. We’ve got that going for us!
To read the entire excerpt on Longreads, click here: James Grissom on Tennessee Williams