When I Grow Up

“Does anyone else feel uncomfortable?”

Chuckles run around the assembled floor sitters, university students all. It’s the summer of 1971 and we’re being oriented to our upcoming four months of work at what is then called Ponoka Mental Hospital.

The psychiatrist leading our evening session has just asked us to share how we’re feeling. The response? Many averted eyes and nary a mumble.

As the silence fills the room, I do my standard thing: going first so others don’t have to, and using what I fondly think of as humour to defuse the tension. Well, at least to relieve the discomfort I’m feeling as, collectively, we fail to meet the leader’s expectations.

“Does that mean you feel uncomfortable, Isabel?” The psychiatrist’s question appears, unbelievably to me, to be genuine.

Duh. Come on. Fer chrissake. And, umm, yeah. I mean, isn’t that the clear meaning of the expression I used? But beyond that, of course I feel uncomfortable sharing my feelings with strangers. Who doesn’t?

To the newly minted 19-year-old me, his question also appears to be an impatient rebuke: “Come on, Isabel, share your feelings.” Or maybe a criticism: “What’s wrong with you, Isabel, that you can’t share your feelings?”

Excellent. Now I feel uncomfortable and inadequate. Thppt.

Fast forward 45 years and I’m watching a delightful YouTube video in which Idris Elba, hitherto unknown to me, asks people what they want to be when they grow up. Given that the askees are all adults — a few are seniors or close to it — it’s an ask that provokes a few chuckles.

Their answers are disarmingly honest: an actor, a drummer, a hot-air balloon pilot, a professional football coach. Their answers are revealing, too, in how they’re delivered: quietly, raucously, defiantly, matter of factly.

“What’s stopped you from doing that?”

Ah, now they step back from that precipice of self-disclosure. Each responds with a comment about, you know, people in general.

“It’s time, isn’t it? It’s taken years just to get to where we are now.”

“At a certain point in your life, if it hasn’t happened, you think it’s never going to happen.”

“I don’t think that people have enough time to dream, bro.”

“Unfortunately, real life does get in the way of your dreams, I guess.”

As I listen to them, I wonder how often I speak this way: Stopping short of owning the feeling, or of owning my life decisions and actions. I wonder, too, whether I want to speak differently sometimes, as that psychiatrist was gently suggesting, bless his heart.

But bless Elba’s heart, too.  He doesn’t say, “Does that mean you don’t think it’s going to happen?”  Or, “Are you saying real life has gotten in the way of your dreams?”

Because, duh. That’s exactly what they’re saying, in a way that allows them to answer without disrobing. Or without crying, maybe.

And that’s OK. They aren’t obliged to share or to hide their feelings; neither am I. And there’s no need for them — or me — to feel uncomfortable or inadequate for choosing either path.


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7 Responses to When I Grow Up

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Or there’s my favourite trick — when challenged to reveal your feelings, tell a story about some similar time in your life as a parallel. Everyone thinks you’re really brave to expose yourself this way, but in fact you’re not exposing yourself at all, you’re merely exposing a former scar that has now healed.
    Jim T

    • Canadian are like cats, while Americans are like dogs: they will do it anywhere and with gusto. Ask away!
      But in my 50 years here, I’ve found Canadians have much more interesting answers when they “open up” — like sea anenomes.

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – Yes, I, too, have found that Americans are a little more forthcoming with strangers. I can strike up a conversation anywhere in the USofA without provoking any odd reaction. Canadians are just that little bit more reticent; Brits are further along that continuum again. As for being more interesting – sure, I’ll accept that. Why not? Polite and interesting – that’s us!

  2. Sid Dunning says:

    I do not want to grow up!


  3. It seems you have had adequate defenses. Psychiatry specializes in the techniques of boldness that make people feel uncomfortable. These ploys breech taboos, the rules of polite communication, or even of caring conversation in order to use the feelings of diminished self-confidence they produce as a platform for selling fallacious theories of behaviour. They have duped the public for the past 130 years into thinking their knowledge of human behaviour is scientific and useful, whereas it has been as speculative or more so than the smarts of any competent shaman. Not to mention horrifically destructive. If the shrink had had anything really useful to give those students he would have been teaching, not indoctrinating on the basis of “feelings.” Some of us are living the dream and it doesn’t have much to do with Hollywood endings but with getting to the bottom of truth to the best of our ability and living according to those principles day by day. I think most people do that, whether or not their efforts are understood or acknowledged or how far apart their aspirations and competencies may be. How unfair of Elba to stir doubt rather than to affirm that life work in the group who has his attention. And how important a lesson for me as I sometimes struggle to affirm the conflicted personalities I meet. Your assertion “And there’s no need for them . . . to feel uncomfortable or inadequate . . . .” struck the right note for me today.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I’m glad it struck the right note, at least today. It hadn’t occurred to me that the reaction to Elba’s questions might be negative – self-doubt, rather than renewed attendance to their dreams – but you may well be right. Maybe a good reminder to act and speak within the limits of our relationships and our knowledge of other people.

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