This post is part two of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, where I describe how verse one, which relays the lifelong impact of my childhood experience with bullying, and how it is essential to know the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully.
I recently turned 25, which is an age that seems like it would come with some additional amount of withheld wisdom or at least a senior discount at the movie theater, but so far has only made my students react with wide eyes and the confidence-building question, “But weren’t you really young when you started teaching us?” It’s been quite the ride.
In my 25 years on this earth, I haven’t ascribed much significance to ages. I didn’t start driving until I was 18. 21 didn’t find me at a bar. 22 did not feel like one of the Taylor Swift’s nights on the town. By all accounts, significant moments in my life haven’t come attached to specific ages.
I do frequently think about the 6th grade. In the grand scope of my youth, that was a defining year. That was the year I became my class’s prime candidate for bullying. I was invited into friend groups, only to be kicked out for “making them look bad.” I was asked questions about myself, only to hear the information retold later in jokes at my expense. I was a loser, a lame, that horrible f-word that has been used to degrade the LGBTQ community for decades now. I was pushed around when the teachers weren’t looking, the recipient of spitballs to the back of my head. Teachers assured my mom that they didn’t see anything. My principal asked if maybe I didn’t possess a sense of humor, if I hadn’t understood that “boys will be boys”? Most days, my mom would sign me out for lunch so that I could cry in her Chevy Astro van in the parking lot, a brief reprieve from the harassment.
It was a terrible, terrible year, but when the seventh grade rolled around, it was over. Nothing significant changed in me, but the class moved on to other targets, and I was safe at last. One would think that this was the end of all that noise.
If you look at my high school track record, the sixth grade underdog came up big. I was the class president and valedictorian, involved in Art, Theater, Student Council, National Honor Society, UIL Academics, and my school’s first-ever all-male “dance” team, the Crazy Cats. It was a classic Cinderella story, one that used to make me think that I was real cool.
Of course, life never leaves off where the happy ending in a movie does. There are always more dragons to face after the credits, and rarely do they go easier on you because of past victories. As I entered college in 2009, I was confronted with the challenge of making a new name for myself in a new place. This sea of 8,000 faces was an opportunity to make new friends and make the most of my four years as an undergraduate.
But that’s not how I viewed this new landscape. What I saw were 8,000 faces that could call me a loser again. What I saw was an infinite amount of scenarios in which I could reveal part of myself only to have it thrown back in my face as a joke. I felt vulnerable, exposed to the possibility that I could be hated again for no reason at all. I was standing in the shadow of my sixth grade self, or what those kids had told me about my sixth grade self, and I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to outlive him.
I’m not the only one who does this. I know people who have yet to outlive words people said about them what seems like lifetimes ago to everyone else, but just yesterday to them. I know people who have yet to outrun past mistakes because they can’t believe that grace extends to oneself. I know people who have yet to let go of missed opportunities, believing that life will never be as good as that alternate route they failed to take.
In some ways, we are all shadow people. We all live out, over and over, the words or actions that we cannot seem to shake for all of our successes and triumphs. I have lived a good life filled with so much joy and so much love, yet sometimes I am standing in a room of people I don’t know and am afraid to speak for fear of what they might think of me. I sometimes have entire weeks of feeling sensitive and remaining quiet, avoiding friends and interactions so that I can protect my bruised ego. I am always on guard for people who might belittle me and revert me back to that insecure boy who stopped trusting others to save his self.
For me, stepping out of the shadows of that fateful year is dangerous. It is a constant risk that I do not always perceive as worth taking. I am risking my ego, my feelings, my self-esteem that took so long to build up after that time, and ultimately myself. Whenever any of us decide to step out of the shadows we are hiding in, we run the very scary risk of losing part of what makes us whole.
But when we decide to stay in the shadows, to lick our wounds for our whole lives, to never trust that there is light for us outside of this darkness, we run the even scarier risk of never truly being whole.
I never fully left the shadows of my sixth grade year in college, and the consequence was only being left with a few good friends from that time, friends I can’t even say know the whole me despite how much I cherish them. I have met up with long-time friends to catch up, only to realize I never fully revealed myself to them, and no longer know them because they never really knew me. I have spent months with my guard up around people I could have loved deeper and received deeper love from, had I only let them in sooner.
We deserve to step out of the shadows. There is light on the other side of whatever darkness we wrestle every day.
We deserve to believe that there are truer, kinder words to be spoken of us by people who actually have our best interest in mind. Better stories exist if we only pick up the pen to write them and share them with our loved ones.
We deserve to accept the grace we extend to others. We can spend our lives paying for the past, but we’ll never settle the debt unless we learn to live forgiven.
Shadow living is a difficult and heavy way to live, but it is also incredibly easy, for it is a pain that is known, comfortable, and predictable. Living in the light requires more of us, is a challenge not everyone wishes to risk, but is ultimately a lighter load to carry. Its pain is the pain that James Baldwin describes when he says, “Love is a growing up.”
We deserve to step from the shadows and live in light, so that we may know love and give love and let go of the rest.
I once thought that grade school bullies were my worst enemies; that was before I picked up their tricks. Only one year of my life was spent being bullied by others, but it was plenty of time to learn how to bully myself for the next ten.
When it comes to self-deprecation, I can downplay myself with the best of them. Attribute any good quality to me, and watch me bat down that compliment like a wasp is headed for my face. A typical exchange goes down like this:
Praiser: “Ben, I hear you’re a great rapper.”
Praisee (me): “Someone must not listen to a lot of rap.”
It’s one of the most common defense mechanisms of our modern world: in case anyone may not find you worthwhile, be the first to suggest it’s true. My self-esteem went from minimal to nonexistent in just one year of elementary school. In response, when other people tried to take my value away, I started taking it before anyone else had the chance.
It worked too. Even today, a lot of my friends appreciate my ability to cut myself down with a pointed comment about my socially awkward style of living. When my roommate attempts to convince me that a girl likes me, I reply, “Yeah, from a distance!”
In some ways, the ability to make fun of yourself is healthy. If done correctly, you may actually possess a high self-esteem that allows you to self-deprecate without self-loathing.
If you aren’t careful, however, you can easily cross that thin line between humor and reality. The fear that others may see through your #flawless social media presence to the #flawed real person pushes you into a dangerous territory where you try to protect yourself by beating yourself up.
Have a talent? Tell people you’re “not that good” or that you “just do it as a hobby.” That way, if they don’t think you’re good, they won’t think it means the world to you.
Have an amazing personality trait? Tell people it’s “not that big of a deal” or that you haven’t really seen it yourself. “You’re so funny!” they say. You look away sheepishly and reply, “Really? I’ve never thought that about myself.” Then, if someone doesn’t see that trait in you, they at least know you don’t either and don’t blame you for others being misinformed.
This modern form of self-loathing is often misnamed as humility. I was raised in church all of my life, where the word ‘humility’ is often thrown about but never properly defined for teenagers already neck-deep in self-hate. Don’t be proud or boastful? Uhh, easy! Don’t take credit for the goods things you’ve done? Check! I’m the best Christian ever!
I cannot pinpoint this blame on any preacher or church leader. On one hand, I was told to acknowledge that all good things come from God and not me. On the other hand, I needed more reminders that I am a good thing that came from God. “God didn’t make no junk” never really resonated with me, as the bad grammar probably turned me off to the message. Instead, I went on believing/pretending that hating myself meant I loved God more than anyone else.
I heard somewhere that to “love your neighbor as yourself” means you must first love yourself to know how to love your neighbor. We always focus on how to love our neighbor, but forget that the simile compares the love you should have for your neighbor with the love that you have for yourself.
By this logic, if you hate yourself, you’ll treat your neighbor the same. If you cannot give yourself grace, how will you possibly offer it to others around you? We have internalized the message that forgiving ourselves for some failures is impossible, and so we withhold the same forgiveness from others. It is a poisonous cycle, one that we must reverse to even possibly change the way the world is now.
Kendrick Lamar recently released a new song called “i,” in which he raps about depression he’s faced since adolescence and a world out to crush his spirit. He responds to these struggles with a rousing battle cry in the chorus: “I love myself.”
In an interview with Hot 97, Kendrick stated that he wrote the song for “these kids that come up to my shows with these slashes on they wrists, saying they don’t want to live no more.” For those who don’t see the light in themselves, Kendrick offers three words to change the language they use when speaking about themselves.
But I also feel as if Kendrick knows something about true humility as well. The title of the song is a lowercase i, which is printed clearly on the single artwork as well as the hat he wears during the interview with Hot 97. The lowering of the case seems to indicate that self-love does not equal pride. Loving yourself doesn’t mean you place yourself on a pedestal; it just means you recognize your worth despite your flaws.
I started teaching an afterschool session with high school students about life after graduation. Each week we talk about different aspects of the college application process or college life. Today we discussed interview etiquette, specifically how to answer questions that ask you to speak well of yourself.
“There is a sweet spot of self-talk,” I told them. “On one end of the spectrum, you can speak so poorly about yourself that no one will hire you or accept you into their college because you let them down before they got the chance to know you. On the opposite end, you can speak so highly of yourself that no one will accept you because they can’t teach someone who thinks they have it all figured out.”
A girl shot her hand up and asked, “But how do you find the balance?”
“Uhh…” I hesitated. How much should I say about my decade-long journey to love myself with a lowercase i?
I considered the pros and cons of spilling too many beans about Ben to my students, and then I went for it: “Look, I used to get bullied, and then I used it as an excuse to bully myself for a long time until I realized that until I loved myself, I wasn’t going to be able to accept love from others or give love to others. So I just stopped bullying myself. Well, I didn’t just stop. It took me a long time. Like, a really long time. It wasn’t anything specific about me that I started loving. I just realized that I am worthy of love and I need to love myself. I’m full of flaws. But I also can talk about the good things I’ve done and be proud of them and not get a big head about them. I guess I’m saying all of this so that it doesn’t you a decade to get to where I am. Cut the corner and start speaking well of yourself now, and eventually you’ll believe it. Just don’t be a jerk about it when you do.”
I’m not sure if this was the answer she was looking for, but she started taking notes after I finished rambling. I’m no expert on how to self-love yet, but I have picked up a thing or two. And I love myself enough to believe that the ripples I set off in my students will be waves by the time they reach someone else.