When you think about it there are only two questions that a therapist usually has to help his client answer: 1) “Who am I?” and 2) “Who do I want to be?” Trust me, after almost 20 years of professionally helping people, almost every situation has eventually boiled down into one, if not both, of these two issues. Whether they are a perpetrator or victim, alcoholic or codependent, philanderer or faithful, depressed or anxious, everyone who has genuinely sought help has realized prior to calling for an appointment that they do not know (or do not like) the answer to the first question, and they need help with the second.
Who Am I?
The problem with answering this question is due, in part, to the reality that everyone on this planet, all 7 billion of us, is a hypocrite. We cannot help but be so. It is a curse of the human condition that we cannot transcend. Hypocrisy seeps out of people like an airborne virus, infecting everyone with whom we come in contact. From the 2-year-old child who insists that he was getting the cookie for you, not himself, to the friend who used a false word in Scrabble just so he could get rid of that darn Q, there is not an arena in life in which we can escape hypocrisy.
But when we realize that we are switching our masks to fit our roles, and hoping to hide the shape or features of the face underneath, we understand that we have become septic with the disease. Guilt overwhelms us and begs the question: who am I, really? Am I the mask or am I the person underneath? We are in desperate need of healing and truth. Because of this, we seek out a mirror which can provide an honest reflection of who we are.
Whether we kneel before God or cry in front of a therapist, the reality is you are, like me, unfortunately both the mask and the person underneath. It is not an either/or decision. You are the person underneath, afraid to be discovered, comfortable pulling your various masks off the wall each day, prancing like an actor on a stage. And you are the mask. The image you have portrayed for so long has stopped being fantasy for you and has become part of who you are. If you cannot admit this basic truth, you may never know the answer to Who am I?
There is guilt that comes with realizing that you are both the mask and the person underneath. You want to be authentic. You want to eliminate the shifting shadows within. But you also want to be accepted, approved, appreciated, respected, and have harmony within your relationships. You believe that there is too great a cost to risk the amount of vulnerability that authenticity demands, yet you desire to live the great adventure of authentic living.
At first you believe that confession must precede change. But confession is more than admitting your faults and inconsistencies. This is important, but it is not the humbling prerequisite that people think it is. I have heard people admit to both moral and venal sins. Some laugh nervously. Some descend into varying degrees of hopelessness. Some just shrug and say, “… But that’s just the way I am.” Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, their admission accomplishes little.
Like a nuclear bomb, the power of confession resides in its core when a person owns their depraved condition. It is not just saying, “I have this fault” or “I have done that thing.” It is an acknowledgment that you are what the mirror of truth shows you to be. This is one reason why AA teaches people to say, “Hi. I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic,” rather than “Hi. I’m John, and I’m a good person who happens to make bad choices from time to time.” A person who has moved from admission to ownership understands this concept, for the mirror of truth has vaporized his rationalizations. You must be willing to do more than recognize your flaws. You must be fearless. You must be willing to accept the call to the adventure of changing yourself. But on this journey you will need someone to provide feedback on whether you are perceiving reality accurately or not. Thus, you may contact a counselor, a pastor, or a mentor. In other words, you receive an assistant, an Obi Wan, if you will, to help you along the journey. Or, if you are a true revolutionary…..
…you go to Comic Con.
Comic Con works too, just in a different way.
Who do I want to be?
I realized this while standing in line with my 13-year-old son for three hours to get Stan Lee’s autograph. Now, just for clarification, that is NOT us in the fairy costumes. But this jingle bell clad couple helped me to see that instead of hiding who you are and needing confession to draw that out, you can pay $50, dress up like any fictional character you desire, display this person in public and, if your costume is designed with excellence, get your picture taken with a few strangers. For a few hours, you get to live out your dream of being Thor, or The Joker, or DeadPool, or Wonder Woman, or even Princess Leia (yes, those costumes are making a comeback, Cinnabon hairdo and all).
But the question that Comic Con raises, especially to an un-costumed person like myself, is not who am I? It is “who do I want to be?”
This is a central question to the human experience and has been present since some well-intentioned adult first asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It ranks right up there with the other core questions from childhood, such as:
“What do you want to play?”
“Do you want to be the good guy or the bad guy?”
And, of course, the all-important “Can Evil Knievel play with Barbie in the Townhouse?” (Despite my objections, my older sister always said yes. I guess Barbie digged that star-spangled motorcycle!)
Still, the question of “who do I want to be” is a powerful one. It not only addresses the wish fulfillment to live gallant, epic lives, but also taps into the fantasy world of who we think we should be. That is why Comic Con provides such a great venue for people struggling with this question. When looked at through the lens of who we think we should be, each costume becomes a metaphor of the qualities or characteristics that we lack, but desire to have. For some that might be strength. For some it might be nobility. Some may desire power, others invulnerability. Some may only want the secrecy of hiding their everyday identity, while others may just want to feel as if they are significantly pushing against the slow encroachment of evil. The reasons can be as multifaceted as a fractal. The problem is that when the convention is over, you have to go home, and the costume comes off.
The blonde wig hangs limply from the corner of a chair. The cape and plastic body armor rest in a pile on the bed. Sadness flickers across your face as you lean into the bathroom mirror and begin gently removing the beard from your haggard face. It was fun being Thor for the day, but the truth is you prefer to believe the illusion to reality. To dream, instead of change. You want to be the hero of your own story, but you do not want to live the hero’s journey. It is too risky, you say. It will cost me too much. I have too many responsibilities. What will my loved ones think? The reward is not worth the effort. The obstacles are too overwhelming. The odds are against me…
On and on and on the inner dialogue goes, boiling over with excuses and rationalizations, until only the charred remains of one characteristic harden at the bottom of the pot: Cowardice.
Somewhere deep inside you know that you are not living the life you should live. You know you could be more. You could be resplendent. But you are afraid, and you shrink, instead, into the deep ruts of mediocrity.
The truth, though, is that you can do this. You can become the hero of your own journey. You can live the life you ought. You can overcome the barriers that stand in your way. How do I know this? First, courage awaits you. If you are waiting for courage to infuse you before you step forward, you will remain stuck, because courage does not work that way. You must first prove to yourself that you can take the initial steps into adventure in order to receive the courage needed. Courage always follows accomplishment. It never precedes it. And each step of the journey is like this. You won’t know if you can, until you do. But at the end of each obstacle, courage awaits.
Secondly, you can do this because these fears you have, the worries you obsess about, are simply the costume that you wear today. The anxieties you have nurtured are based on the limited abilities of the person you are today. But what these fears are not, what they can never be based on, is the person you will be at the end of the journey. What we seem to forget is that anxiety and fear is always future based. It is about predicting what “present you” can accomplish without risk, without change, without help. But if you are going to peer into the future, you must look at the person that is the you waiting at the story’s end. That you is different. Stronger. Wiser, Craftier. That you is reborn. Changed. From the vantage point of “future you,” “I can’t” does not exist, because he already has. Therefore, if you are looking at the future accurately, your fears are unfounded. Future you has already accepted the call to adventure and successfully come out on the other side.
Finally, you can do this, because you will not do it alone. No hero does. Every hero has an assistant, a mentor, or a companion. Odysseus had Athena. Luke had Obi Wan. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. But none of them were alone. Those who think they must do the adventure by themselves is a fool. This has never been the case, and it never will be. So, be bold. Bold enough to listen to good advice. Bold enough to leave behind the status quo, to step out into the unknown. Bold enough to leave those who do not believe in you. And bold enough to take along those who do what you cannot do for yourself. You are not omnipotent. You never will be. You need a Ron to play chess for you or a Hermione to solve the riddles, so that you can face the true challenge at the end.
You can do this. Step out from behind the mask. Own your flaws. Take off the costume of cowardice. And accept the call to adventure. You may just find there is a true hero inside of you after all.