Friday, June 9, 2023

The bullet-proof vest

Any of y’all ever read Abba’s Child? I did, in 2020, and it was nothing less than transformative. However, there was one bit that I couldn’t really resonate with, which just so happened to be the book’s most celebrated chapter: The Impostor. I remember reading it and thinking, What impostor? I don’t have an impostor.

Except that yes, actually, I absolutely do have an impostor, i.e. a false self … one that is so near to me that I’ve stopped even noticing it: it’s the role I step into every day in order to exist in France; it’s who I become when I’m interacting with the world using French. I wear my French self like a piece of clothing. When I speak in French, I’m no longer me; I’m effectively somebody else. 

For those who learn a second language relatively late in life, their mother tongue will always be their love language, and by love language I mean the language that speaks from and to the heart. It’s the one you think with. For me, that’s English. My French skills after over 20 years of life in France, built upon an earlier decade of learning French in school, are excellent—but that doesn’t change the fact that French will forever be my second tongue.

What this means is that when I speak French, I don a new persona. I can’t help it; language as I see it isn’t a ball cap that you can put on and take off; language is a full-body costume that dresses you up as someone else. Moreover, that someone evolves over time. In the beginning, when I could barely string two French sentences together, “French me” appeared to be foolish and naive, as opposed to the real me, who is neither of those things. As time went by, and my language skills improved, French me ceased being an embarrassment and took on a life of her own, branching off in new directions that the real me barely knew. French me took risks, got an office job, went on dates—while the real me avoided risks, loathed office work, and was petrified by the very thought of dating. 

More time went by, and the chasm between the two “me’s” widened. I realized that the French language allowed me to say things I would never dare say in English. Why? Because as a native English speaker, there is no filter for me between a word in that language and its true meaning. In English, I understand every word I use and hear; I feel its significance and my heart acknowledges its emotional weight. But in French, words have a kind of protective coating on them. They’re not so much vehicles of sentiment as they are exotic playthings to be collected, tried out, and shown off—with little care for their full meaning. Thus, I can say things in French (hear things, too) and grant those words only a fraction of the emotional power of their equivalent in English. “I hate you” or “I love you” in English does not have the same meaning as “Je te haïs” or “Je t’aime” in French, despite being direct translations. The words may technically mean the same thing, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. French to me is like code language, and all code language is by definition artificial.

That might sound somewhat liberating—and for a highly sensitive introvert like me, it often is. But over time, after navigating through high emotional seas and seasons of heavy conflict, quarrels with bosses, bureaucrats, friends, and later, a husband and children, that “costume” gradually hardened into something more akin to a bullet-proof vest. It’s one I still put on every day. It allows me to shrug off snide remarks, rationalize criticism, swear colorfully, and not lose a wink of sleep over any of it. But let’s be honest—it’s not me; it’s an impostor. And over the long run, the weight of that false self has grown heavy. 

Perhaps more worryingly, I wonder whether those who know me only in French sense that they don’t *actually* know me. That may partially explain my craving for solitude. Left to myself, there’s no need for any artifice, no self-imposed burden to bear. But then, this dichotomy doesn’t make me particularly exceptional; on the contrary, if Brennan Manning’s chapter The Impostor is so well-known, it is precisely because it resonates far and wide. We all put on false selves that allow us to survive, false selves that shield our tender hearts. The roles we play, the masks we wear, they’re all coping mechanisms—and all of us have them. Mine is French; yours may be the disguise of the Business Leader or the Super Parent or the Social Butterfly. But in the end, have not all of these false selves overstayed their welcome? Have they not proven to be more burdensome than beneficial? 

What do you suppose would happen if we were to lay down the impostor at last? Would the world recoil in horror? Would we be mocked and rejected? Or would our souls breathe a sigh of relief and wonder what took us so long to realize that we never truly needed any disguise to begin with?