We often find ourselves in social gatherings where we have to put on a face and be willing to meet people. But sometimes this can feel fake and insincere. In the midst of this, we often forget how to present our imperfect lives to others.
Recently I was at a gathering for a lay religious community. These meetings occur a couple times a month. This particular meeting had a number of new faces, acquaintances, and handful of individuals I would consider close friends. Naturally, everyone is trying to give a happy, and presentable impression of themselves. For the most part, I enjoyed seeing everyone smiling and hearing them laugh. But oftentimes I become skeptical at seeing a person’s big smile, or hearing their loud laugh. I wonder how much of this is genuine expression, or how much of it is faked. I myself am guilty of exaggerating a smile or laugh when talking to someone, and I think there is a degree of courtesy in showing someone a happy face even if your life has not been all that cheerful recently. Brutal honesty is not always charitable. But, hiding behind fake expressions can feel cowardly.
During the gathering, I began speaking with one friend about his past week. Soon the conversation began to focus on his struggles with school applications, robotic days, and having little to no free time to relax. I was surprised he was sharing this side of himself to me, especially after he had been cheery and giggle just 10 minutes ago. But I enjoyed his honesty and trust to present this side of his life to me. I began telling him how I had been going though something similar, robotic days, unsure about my future, and schedules piling up. As the conversation continued we realized we were going through very similar issues. The more we related on this level, the more we began exposing this “unpresentable” side of our lives. We were essentially admitting that we do not have our lives well put together. But it felt energizing and the conversation felt more real. We were sharing negative experiences, but our reciprocated understanding and sympathy to each other lessened our personal burdens. He told me “we need to talk more. This is why we need honest conversations”. We only spoke for 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes made the rest of that gathering genuinely enriching.
I was thankful that we shared our imperfect lives amidst the cheerful frivolous vibe. Perhaps, many of us have lost how to express this vulnerability and need to re-learn this.
Now, I am not saying conversations always have to be open and vulnerable. Every meeting and every person is different and gauging this difference shows conversational prudence. We need not ventilate overtly to every person we encounter nor should we dwell on the negative parts of our lives in excessive pessimism. Also, I’m not denigrating having a cheerful, up-beat attitude in social situations. I find smiling, humor and light-hearted stories refreshing and can spark creativity and energy. But, I think being more honest and more willing to share our imperfect lives is something novel we each can contribute to others even at just a one-off conversation. There’s humility in sharing, or listening to another person in this way. I myself am still learning how to do this well. I’ve often been surprised at someone’s reaction to me doing this and how they even appreciate my trust in them to receive it.