So, when I was a kid, I would be the one who said the most outrageous things. The kind of stuff that would have people exclaim my name in surprise, or gasp, or stare at me in wordless shock.
I would ask questions that were seen as challenging or defiant. Stuff that teachers, parents and classmates alike would get angry with me for. My mother commented that I was fearless and headstrong. My father commended my social bravery and my willingness to stand up for what was right.
But they were both wrong.
You see, to be “headstrong,” one has to realize that others are trying to cue you to do something else. And to be brave, you have to realize that what you’re doing is dangerous. When I saved a classmate from drowning at age 7, I wasn’t brave. I had no concept of the danger of jumping in after someone who was drowning or of what someone who is a foot taller and 30lbs heavier could do to you in a pool. I was lauded for my bravery, but they were mistaken. To me, I was just helping my classmate out of the pool because he yelled “help!” and “can’t swim!” between choking on water, and I figured since I was closest, I should be the one to help. I had no idea of the danger. It wasn’t an act of courage, it was an act of empathy.
Likewise, when I did outrageous actions, I didn’t do them to be outrageous. I did them because I didn’t realize they were outrageous.
Sometime in high school, I began to realize that I pissed people off a lot. And that people always thought it was my fault. “Bullshit you didn’t know that was a bad thing to say!” they’d yell at me. “I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”
But I really didn’t know. And I usually still don’t. But I know that saying what I think, how I think it, is dangerous.
I never learned how to spot when something I’m about to say will piss someone off. I also never learned how to spot when a question has the potential to blow up in my face. But what I did learn, as a way to quit pissing people off, was how to equivocate. How to hide my thoughts behind bullshitese and say something so ambiguous in response to a question that in effect I’m saying nothing. So, instead of saying a dress is ugly, I say, “it’s not my style.” Instead of taking sides in an argument, I reflexively utter some bullshit about how I can see it from both sides. Whenever someone asks me a question of the sort that could get me in trouble, I feel a stab of fear and think about how to avoid giving them any reason to get upset with me.
People now call me “political” and compliment my diplomacy. They marvel at how I’m always able to avoid taking a hard side.
They don’t realize that I’m terrified of what will happen if I do.