Don’t Let Anyone Else Tell You Who You Are

Thomas Leuthard
Thomas Leuthard

Our entire culture attempts to put itself into neat little boxes, so we know exactly what to expect from everything. We have to find ways to further categorize each section of our lives. We don’t just have friends, we have work friends, home friends, school friends, friends we invite to parties, friends we’re friends with out of convenience.

When people break out of those compartments, we freak out.

When a Playboy centerfold voices her opinions on the glass ceiling and immigration laws, it makes headlines. When a rigid, suit-and-tie-all-day-every-day politician’s sexual endeavors are revealed to the public, his approval rating decreases. We turn everyone into one-dimensional characters, forgetting that politicians and celebrities and the grocery store cashier with a snaggletooth are all real, complex, thought-filled, passionate creatures like the rest of us.

This is a dangerous train of thought. It’s dangerous to think that we have such a deep understanding of another person’s characteristics and abilities. Rags-to-riches stories appear all the time, with people whose lives were seemingly gloomy suddenly experiencing a stroke of brilliance, shocking everyone around them. Conversely, there have been several instances where perfectly functional human beings with families and mortgages have turned out to be some of the cruelest, most brutal serial killers and rapists in the world.

So why is it still shocking?

Why is it so hard for us to think that a woman can be sexy and smart? Why do we think that because a man spends most of his week in rigid meetings and giving speeches about gun control and lowering taxes, he doesn’t have the right to be a freak in the sheets every once in a while? Why do people freak out when I don’t fit their stereotypes of what they think a biracial person should act/look like? Why do we consider sexual identity a black and white, straight or gay kind of deal when the Kinsey scale makes so much more sense?  Why is it so weird for students to see their teachers at the grocery store or the movie theater?

Because we compartmentalize. It’s easier for our brain to deal with everything if we can categorize; by putting people into neat little boxes, it helps us legitimize someone’s existence.

But people aren’t meant to be like that.

I may describe myself to people as a liberal, theatre-crazed bookworm who wears her heart on her sleeve and her keyboard, but that’s not all I am. It may not even be the most accurate description of me. But it’s easier for us to even compartmentalize ourselves in order to deal with ourselves and make some sense of all of the crazy things going on in our heads. I spent years trying to come to terms with what being biracial was supposed to mean in relation to my life. Whether I could attribute certain parts of my personality to being raised by the black side of my family. The answer was no. We are not jigsaw puzzles, with each piece fitting snugly next to the other ones. We’re all big, beautiful collages filled with bright colors and muted tones, contradictions and hypocrisies, shortcomings and overcompensations. But this is good news.

It may be harder for us to deal with people this way. It means we can’t just assume that the guy who cut us off on the interstate is a bonafide jerk with no redeeming qualities. It means we can’t assume that the ahhhh-mazing, hot slice of cutie pie we just met is our soulmate, with no hangups or unattractive attributes.

But it does mean that we can all stop pretending. We can accept the fact that our future spouse who is of course going to be 100% perfect for us is still going to have morning breath sometimes. Feminists can stop pretending that women who wear makeup and dresses or even men can’t be feminists too. Democrats and Republicans can breathe easy if they don’t like the candidate their party chose. We can all just be.

We can learn to be okay with not liking certain aspects about people or society without writing them off completely.

There’s so much to each and every person, it’s hard to think that there ISN’T something good that we can find in everyone. Something admirable. There’s not a single person on the planet that I cannot think of a redeeming quality for, even if it’s a quality that they use in unredeeming ways. Let’s start seeing the forest for the trees, and relax a little bit with all the labels and boxes. TC mark

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