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Sharing Our Humanity

It sounds like a cliché, but our views and perspective of life really do change as we age, or at least they do for me.  The naivety of youth fades away, as we realize that we need to truly share our humanity to make a difference in our lives, and the lives of others. A basic part of us as humans, all want to be accepted, loved and feel that we are part of a community. 

I know for me it has always been about feeling accepted, and loved for who I truly am as an individual. The problem is that, as humans we spend too much time protecting, deflecting and masking our true selves behind a public façade. We are taught to keep a stiff upper lip, and never air our dirty laundry in public.

Unfortunately, it is our personal issues and problems that bring us to together as humans. We find commonality in our humanity, so we should learn to share, and reach out to others. We often feel great sadness when we hear of the tragic passing of a celebrity from an accidental overdose or suicide. We know these stories, because the person is a public figure, and we learn about their lives through the media.

What about all the tragic stories we don’t know about? You could have friends who are going through emotional stress, addiction problems, mental health issues, and they suffer in silence, because we think no one should be allowed beyond the public persona.  We think we need to gloss over the things that make us human and provide small talk – the weather, movies, sports, etc.  It is the trivial and innocuous that keep us apart.  

Mostly, we don’t spend time really “being” with our friends.  It isn’t about invading what you feel is someone’s personal space or asking someone to cross the line on what is truly personal, but it is sharing yourself with a friend, and making them feel safe to share with you.  You have to get into their world, and be ready to accept it for what it is.  It is about walking in their shoes, pumps, work boots, sneakers or flip-fIops.  If you can’t, then you should label yourself an acquaintance and not a friend.

We’ve become indoctrinated into the mundane, and what we perceive to be friendliness toward those around us. How many times have you asked, or has someone you know asked, “How are you today?” Do you realize it has basically become a catch phrase for “Hello” or “Good Morning?” You ask the question, but really don’t want an authentic answer. You are waiting for the cursory response,  “doing good” or “I’m fine.”

If the person being asked responds with “I am not really feeling too well. I am dealing with a lot of stress at home, because, etc.”  Most likely you have already tuned them out. You are looking at your watch or tapping the elevator button, because you are ready to move on. They’ve responded authentically, and they think you are asking out of concern. They don’t realize for you it is as vacuous as stating “How about those Phillies?”

We need to learn how to communicate effectively if we want to develop true relationships with people. We can just settle for a cursory acceptance from those around us, but it leaves emptiness. If you really just want to acknowledge someone’s presence say “Good morning” or “Hello”. Don’t ask how they are, if you really don’t want an answer. It is like opening a door to let someone through and then closing it on their foot.

You leave someone feeling invalidated as your eyes glaze over, and they realize they have shared their humanity, but you could care less.  You’ve missed a great opportunity, and all you can think about is getting on with your day. You don’t realize the connection you have lost. It takes bravery and not being afraid of whom you are to share yourself with another person. If you can stand in that place of being fearless, and authentic to yourself, you can build powerful relationships.

It is the willingness to put yourself out there, and not hide your identity that can have the most impact on other’s lives. The easiest way to explain my point is to relate it to myself.  I grew up in a time when being gay was really not accepted. The Stonewall Riots were in the news, and the idea of gay marriage was years away.  Tolerance was a rare exception.  

If I look back, I guess I always knew I was gay, or at least different in the sense of what seemed the norm for other young males. I suffered from being shy and also from a low self-esteem, because I was made to feel I didn’t fit in.  At school, I was called names, and bullied. Kids would say, “He is a sissy” or “He acts like a girl.” I would go home and try to pretend things were fine, but I would sink further into believing I was worthless.

I was an oddity, someone to be looked down upon. My school years were mostly unhappy and filled with loneliness. I always thought, “Why can’t I be normal, and just fit in with everyone else?” I just wanted to be accepted and feel I was part of the crowd.  I grew up a loner, not really having close friends, and I never felt I had someone I could talk to about really personal things.

I managed to make it through grade school, and I did have some neighborhood friends. Although, I might have felt inferior, because I was the one always chosen last for dodge ball, or mocked while trying to play touch football, I did feel like I was somehow a part of the community. There were children I was friendly with, and in that moment of playing childhood games, I felt included.  It seems that females are more inclusive, and accepting. I always had great female friends.

The more difficult time came when puberty arrived, and the high school years began. Then sexuality blends into the equation, and your sexual role becomes a part of who you are. My issue was I didn’t want to accept who I was, and I felt isolated. It was a time when I felt I just needed to blend into the background, and not be noticed. Stay out of everyone’s range of fire. The only problem is you become a nonentity.  A shadow of who you really are. I was afraid to speak up. I didn’t want people to pay attention to me. People thought I was either painfully shy or that I was a snob who thought he was too good to relate to them. I was Mr. Cellophane and I wanted people to look right through me.

That really was not the case. It was what I conceived to be a survival mode. Inside, I was screaming to be accepted and wanted to feel worthy. I was tired of being called “Faggot,” “Queer,” “Fairy,” or many other derogatory terms. Every word was a stab in my self-esteem.  I realize now that I was giving the bullies all the power. I was buying into their hate and disdain. When I was young and trying to figure out where I fit in the world, I couldn’t discern that or have the wisdom to figure it out.

I always had parents who were supportive of me. They never pushed me in any direction. They let me be who I was. The problem with that was I didn’t want to be who I was, because everyone around me made me feel it was wrong and shameful.

Being loved and connected is a basic desire of being human. Everybody wants to find that special relationship. Dating and school-aged crushes begin, but that never happened for me. How could it? I grew up in a small town, and it was not a very diverse population. It wasn’t a time for self-expression or coming out of the closet, unless you were getting your clothes for school.

I felt if I told someone that I thought or felt I was gay, I would be shunned, rejected, avoided or categorized as sick. It was what I grew up hearing from society – not from my parents. If I uttered the words, I would be doomed. It was better to remain in my self-inflicted purgatory, then into a world where I couldn’t see myself ever being happy. I lived in a world that was across the street from normal. It was a long time off before I realized I had to accept myself, and to hell with those that didn’t accept me.

The pressure of peer groups, and the constant sense of shame from being singled out by bullies became very stressful.  One day, I came home from school and had a panic attack so bad my back muscles went into spasms, and my parents had to take me to the ER.  It was recommended to my parents that I see a counselor to assist me in dealing with stress and whatever emotionally I was going through.

The counselor I saw advised that the school system should provide a tutor, and I needed to concentrate on my own mental health. It is funny - through all my sessions with the counselor we never discussed sexuality. I am sure he knew the root of my issues, but he really just wanted me to learn that overall there was nothing wrong with me. His intention was for me to realize I was okay the way I was, and the way I was not. I had to shed the protective shell I created and expose myself at the core. There I could find the person I was meant to be, and all the potential inside. That journey is a very long road.

I was emotionally better not being in a school environment that was toxic for me, but I missed a great deal of socialization. I spent much of my high school years almost being home schooled by various tutors. It provided an ideal academic education, but I lost the social element of school. I was an occasional student, and I am sure that classmates who knew me, wondered where I would disappear to during the year. I did show up for my Senior Class Trip and the Prom, so I didn’t miss all the memorable events.

I do remember a lot of lonely summers when I didn’t have friends to hang out with or anyone calling me on the phone just to chat. There was a price for being Mr. Cellophane and wanting to disappear. Those are days I can’t get back, so I have to know that it became part of whom I am, and things I must accept. Moving forward is always the goal, although I have stumbled many times.

I made it through high school with a lot of scars, and a few brilliant moments with a small group of friends. Away from school, I felt I could still skirt the issue of my sexuality since I was removed from the bullies and the taunts. I really was fooling myself and really avoiding intimacy.  The issue was like a dog about to attack; the only way I could ever tackle the threat was to stare it directly in the eyes and disarm it.  Instead, I let it nip at me pretending it didn’t sting.

If I avoided any part of my sexuality, how could I even be labeled or suspected of being part of “that crowd.” It really wasn’t going away, I just portrayed it as disinterest. I never saw myself as a stereotypical gay man, but it seems that others did view me in that category. The incidents were not as often, but there were still mean, hateful, bigoted people to contend with.

I remember making friends on my first real job out of high school. It was working retail in a department store.  I made work friends quickly, and soon I had car pool friends, lunch friends and a paycheck. I was on my way to becoming a responsible adult in the daily work world. One of the women I considered a friend, invited me to come to her house sometime to watch a movie on cable. At the time, our house didn’t have cable so it was something to look forward to. I wanted to discover the new world of HBO and its first run movies.

When the actual invitation never came, I inquired and found out that my friend’s husband didn’t want me in his house.  He didn’t want “my kind” in his house or near his children.  It hit me like an unexpected slap across the face. I felt humiliated and once again worthless and ashamed.  I wasn’t even acting on my feelings, I was living a celibate lifestyle and still ignorant people were judging me. The problem was I still cared what people thought.  It didn’t matter to me if they were worthy of my friendship. I still wanted the overall acceptance and I didn’t want to feel like an outcast.

I didn’t see a way out of my situation. I began to drink to excess, and then would just feel sorry for myself. I didn’t have gay friends, and I was afraid to venture beyond my small town lifestyle.  After a failed suicide attempt with pills, and leaving a coming out good-bye note to my parents, I knew it was time to get my life together.

I was lucky. My parents were very accepting – I think they already knew. The big hurdle was over. Once I declared I was gay, it was easier for me to start accepting myself sexually, and to want to explore what it meant for me as an adult male. I really came out as I entered the last years of college and I began to venture into Philadelphia. The city was more diverse, and there were places I could be a part of the crowd. I went to bars and met guys just like me. They were also struggling to find their place in the world, and be happy and in love.

This was during the 1980’s, so there was the AIDS epidemic impacting the gay community.  I recall, one night, being in a dance club in Philly and running into an acquaintance of mine from a part-time college job. He left the job when he went off to graduate school, and I hadn’t seen him since then. When we worked together, I always thought of him as the typical All-American boy next door. He was clean cut, preppy and the nicest guy I had ever met. We worked the same shift and became work friends, often having lunch together.   

It was such an affirming occasion to meet him in a gay club. I think I said, “What are you doing here?” as if it was such an incredulous thing to see him. I never had good gaydar, so it is always a surprise for me to find out someone is gay. Unless, the person’s actions are blatantly obvious to me, like prancing into a room blowing air kisses or they are wrapped in a rainbow flag, then I probably will figure it out. I usually don’t find it easy to tell where someone’s sexual preference lays, nor is it a concern of mine.

Meeting my former work friend was such a positive thing for me. I had always admired him so it was great to reconnect. This was a time when I needed friends, that I could identify with and feel supported for my lifestyle. He seemed very comfortable with himself. This gave me strength to finally stop feeling shame and guilt for trying to accept who I was. Here was someone that I admired and could emulate. We became closer friends, than when we originally worked together. We found a core commonality that provided a much deeper camaraderie.

For so long I carried a stigma of being gay because of all the naysayers, that my sense of self changed with my new friendship. I finally began to accept myself because I had a positive role model. He was someone I came to love as a true friend. Unfortunately, I will never have the chance to tell him what a difference he made in my life, because he died of AIDS five years after we reconnected. I miss his friendship, his kindness and being able to spend time with him. I regret the things I never said. I should have let him know how much he helped me find some inner peace.

At that point, I was still on a journey that only age and experience could provide the awareness to acknowledge someone for who they are in your life. This is something most of us are not good at doing. We don’t realize how people in our lives influence and contribute to who we are and who we become. We are formed from a community, and a past of individuals who build a path for us. They support us to go forward if we allow them, and acknowledge them as our guides. Everyone needs suppport, so reach out and realize you’re not a sparkling diamond now, without all those who came before to shape you.

It is only through sharing our personal challenges, and exposing our humanity that shows who we really are. I have realized it is better to shine the light on our identity, than to remain Mr. Cellophane without one. Bullies seem to prey on those that seem weak, shy .... the runts of the litter. By trying to remain hidden in the background we make ourselves a bigger target for the attackers. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to stand up and get into a physical battle with the troublemakers in life. The bullies of the world seem to feed off the fear and anguish they inflict.

Don’t let them instill the self-doubt, the shame and the self-loathing. At least speak up for yourself and then walk away. Let them know you are proud of who you are, and remember their bravado is an armor for their insecurities. You are much better than they will ever be, and if you doubt it, find someone who you can share your humanity with. There is always someone out there willing to listen, even if you have to find a professional counselor. Don’t try to go it alone. It is very hurtful, lonely and painful.  I know because I followed that path for a long while, and now I have charted a better course.

It all lies in communication, sharing and being authentic to who you are. It won’t always be easy, and there will still be struggles, but there is such a greater sense of freedom in living with your true self. Whatever issues you’ve had to deal with, or you’re still working on, know that greatest happiness resides in accepting yourself. Share that acceptance with everyone around you. The love you receive will be real, and the relationships will be true. All the peripheral distractions are nonsense, so throw them out with the trash. You’ll be a better person for sharing your humanity. I know because I have done it.








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