Adrift in an ocean of orange and blue, my scowl sank into the metal bench.
I was 18, I was at a University of Florida football game and I was feeling seasick. Not because of too many Bud Lights, but because I recognized a disconnect between how I was acting and how I was feeling.
When you’re a student at UF, it’s assumed you’re a good, little Gator fan. When I was a student, I played center on a recreational football team with friends and attended other college sporting events. I bought not one, but two shirts with UF logos. Hesitantly, I attended services at the Church of Our Lord and Savior Tim Tebow.
Ultimately, it didn’t mean much to me. Still, I pretended.
What if the behaviors and qualities we exhibit that earn us the most feedback, popularity and praise feel — at a base level— disingenuous?
Like a switch is flipped, another actor has taken the stage, and you’re watching from the wings, gnawing nervously at the velvet curtains. How can you enter center stage, join hands with this other self and merge into one identity that feels true at home in pajamas and in mixed company?
The first place to look may be where our identity feels threatened. Fear of being othered or judged by our peers can keep us from revealing our inner selves. Nobody wants to be the only one in the group on a different frequency. However, when you’re looking in the mirror through a kaleidoscopic lens, incorporating who everyone else thinks you are into your self-perceptions, the image you present becomes convoluted. Who cares if people don’t quite understand you, if you understand you?
At home, my refrigerator is covered with photos of my family members in their childhoods, concert ticket stubs, articles ripped from magazines and several art prints: the Mona Lisa, a crying angel baby and Kendrick Lamar, to name a few. I stare at each item and remember all the locations, faces and events that make up who I am. No matter when a photo of me was taken, my left eye is never open as wide as my right. No one will probably spot that lazy eyelid, but I will. All these memories, splayed out like an analog Pinterest board, serve as a tool to comfort me when I’m reminded of how others perceive me.
I’m not advising we live through memories and ignore all feedback we receive. Who we surround ourselves with shape our sense of self, like when sharing something of deep import to someone and they respond with an equally genuine sense of enthusiasm and interest. That’s what my boy Jean-Paul Sartre calls a “perfect moment” in his first novel “Nausea”: Time slows down enough for you to climb inside of the present and snuggle up, its warmth radiating throughout your body. We have arrived, hurrah!
Then there are times when others’ perceptions can make you feel like an open box has been jammed over your head. I remember when I first ended the Great Nail Polish Strike I began on Y2K New Year’s Eve. (Why did I strike? Beats me.) When I was 24, I started painting my nails red and pink, and I felt like a grown-ass woman. I went home for the holidays and asked some childhood friends what they thought of the colors. “It doesn’t seem like you,” I heard. “It’s like you’re trying to be someone else.”
The only way to figure out what feels true of us is to experiment, to allow ourselves total freedom of expression. If a new experience feels good, repeat it. Paint those nails any color you want. Nurture what you know to be your strengths and interests and look for new ones. Of course, at the end of every lab report must come the conclusion. Sometimes the findings are prognosis: negative. If something doesn’t feel true, it’s fine to forgive your error and move on.
What feels true of us can change at any moment. I like to think of identity as silly putty. Really nasty, melted putty that you left in the backyard all weekend that’s simultaneously in a solid and malleable state. My identity is solid in that it remains whether I am alone or in mixed company. I have a very expressive face; there’s nowhere for my thoughts to hide. But, who I am is not rigid. It freely molds and adapts with other personalities I engage with. Still, I like what I like, and I find meaning in some people and things and not others.
Many a Friday night, I go downtown for music, art, friends and gin. I become animated, even aggressive, during discussions of philosophy, social mores and culture. A couple Fridays ago, I found myself in the middle of an argument about the current state of cinema. I adamantly explained that things weren’t like they used to be.
Mid-sentence, I realized I hadn’t seen a new movie in a theater in years. Unless you count “Popstar,” starring Andy Samberg. A treasure, sure, but not a piece of cinema. I thought, why am I talking about something I don’t know shit about? At this point, my gaze rose above the lanterns dancing in the breeze out back of The Top. I attempted to recall the collection on my fridge. Slowly, I began to feel familiar again.
Tyler Francischine is a writer, event planner and audiophile who would rather be floating on her back in the Atlantic.