“Sometimes you put up walls, not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”
We all put up walls, whether or not we realize it. Perhaps it’s in a new situation where we know we’re going to be judged by others, or maybe it’s because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. Other times we put up those walls to protect ourselves from the harsh nature of the world, or because we’re just afraid. Fear is the biggest reason we put up walls: fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of change, and ultimately even fear of ourselves. We think that if other people saw us for who we really are, not only would it expose us to them, but if they reject us, they’re rejecting US, not just some facade we put up that we felt would be acceptable.
From the time I was very little I learned how to put up walls. First, it had to do with my family and the fact that everyone judged us from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed, and maybe even into the night, but I didn’t know about it because I was sleeping. The reasons were many. We were black. We were poor. We were big into church. My father was a preacher. My family was a single-parent home for the vast majority of my childhood and adolescence. We lived in the inner city ghetto. We wore hand-me-down clothes. We were smart. We were all huge readers. We fit in if you looked at us at a quick glance, but when you got to know us you realized pretty quickly that we were “other.”
And I wasn’t okay with that. I wanted to be like everyone else I saw, not judged because of factors either I had no control over or that had ultimate control over me. In short, I wanted to fit in. And as simple as that sounds, for me it wasn’t easy at all. I have always been socially awkward, which would surprise many people reading this because the first thing people would say about me is that I’m outgoing. And I am definitely that. In fact, if I’m in a room you’ll probably know it because I’m saying something. Always. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be socially awkward. I tend to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, to crack a joke that no one gets, or to do some strange Michael Stipe-ish dance with flailing legs and arms akimbo. When god was handing out rhythm, he gave me none. So, I decided I was going to make myself over in the image of others.
That was how I put up walls, but they weren’t to keep others out. They were to keep the real me shut up inside, like Rapunzel in her high tower. I began building those walls brick by brick, hiding the awkward me, the poor me, the rhythm-less me, the real me. And it was easy, too, the building process. First, I started wearing sweaters because sweaters were all the rage in the ’80s, the more interesting the pattern the better. Then I began learning how to store up jokes from others, so when the time came I could come up with something that was funny because I had seen it used before to comedic effect. I learned never to dance in front of other unless I absolutely had to, and when I did to imitate the guy dancing next to me, no more, no less. And the highest part of the wall was constructed from language, amazingly enough. I learned how to disguise my vernacular, my “slang,” so that I sounded more refined and less ghetto.
It worked, too. I began getting more friends, spending more time with others, and learning how to fortify those walls even more. I was accepted, not as the preacher’s son, but as a guy who was witty, who was stylish, and who always said the right thing at the right time. People wanted to be around me, and wanted to be like me. But after finally getting what I had wanted my whole life, I still felt hollow and I couldn’t quite place my finger on why. Then I ran into someone I had known for ages but hadn’t seen in a long time, and she challenged me to accept what I had done. She made me take a long hard look at the people I thought were my friends and to look at myself from their perspective. What I saw terrified me.
You see, they weren’t friends with me; they were friends with this person who appeared vain, self-serving, stuck-up, whatever other phrases you can think of that also fit that vein. It was someone I wouldn’t have ever wanted to befriend, someone I probably would have avoided at all costs. It shocked me to the core. Why was I fighting so hard to be someone I wouldn’t want to even be around? I realized I had built the wall so high that I couldn’t see in or out, that I had build it so solidly that I had tricked even myself into believing the lies that I had built up brick by brick. And my one true friend had instantly torn a hole in that wall so I could finally see what I had been doing.
Slowly, I began chipping at the wall. It wasn’t worth it to be popular if it meant I had to suppress my true self, but it had taken me ages (and an old friend) to truly see that for what it was. And I found myself somewhere in the middle. I didn’t have to be socially awkward. I just had to stop being ashamed of who I was. I didn’t have to be the life of the party either, and my sense of humor could actually be appreciated by those who were worth my time, those people who accepted me for me. What really helped me to finish tearing down those walls, though, was the knowledge that someone somewhere did accept me for who I was. That meant it was possible, and that’s all it took.
I had built the walls not to keep others out, but to keep the real me in. And I tore them down to set myself free, to embrace my natural character traits. And all because someone cared enough to tell me the wall was there.