Be Little

I just finished a wonderful novel called Panenka by Ronan Hessian. It’s about a man whose life is defined by a single day, a moment of public humiliation after which his sense of himself and his inherent value are irreversibly altered. The self-loathing has made him chronically numb and laconic, so that even when he wants to reach out and connect with others, he can’t. He does learn, though, over the course of the story, and finds a way to understand that he is both loving and loved. The book is beautifully written, populated by rich characters and an earthy setting, and the dialogue has that scattered, off-the-nose quality of real conversation. If you haven’t read it and you’re looking for something good… You’re welcome.

The book got me thinking about the events that define us, those pivot points at which your perception of yourself becomes blurry then resolves to a new degree of clarity. I have had moments—small ones, on ordinary days—when I’ve realized, Oh, this is what so-and-so really thinks, this is how I’m talked about, or, Now I get it, the joke’s on me. My ego is not what you’d call robust, so finding myself disliked or apparently ridiculous is going to leave a mark. I’m a lot more reserved now in work situations. I keep to myself. I’ll give a little back to balance a shared confidence, but I don’t divulge the real stuff, and I maintain a battened-down status on my opinions.

It makes me wonder who I’d be if some key moments in my life had not happened. If that coworker had not screamed at me all those years ago. If I’d never caught the exchanged look between a therapist and aide, which plainly said, This chick is super weird. If my sister had never called me out for being selfish, if I’d never called my own sweet mother a bitch. Awful moments, all of them, and there are direct lines to be drawn from some of these incidents to my present state of being; every rehashed memory is another log on the dam, so that my authentic but flawed personality can be diverted and forced through safer terrain.

In many ways, my relationships have been improved by these conflicts. I’m more mindful now of my effect on other people, and I no longer assume I’m going to be able to make another person understand who I am or where I’m coming from. But there are taxes to be levied on every form of insight. Years ago I received a friend’s scathing and unsolicited review of one of my books, after which I felt bruised and misrepresented by my own words. Would I still be publishing if I’d never seen it? Would I have continued blithely onward, believing myself better than I am? And is the resulting reticence a net positive in my development as a human, or has it only held me back.

It’s hard to say, and probably a pointless exercise in any case. You can’t unhear a scream or unread an email. These little things matter, and they stay with us.

You probably have a few of your own.