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What People Think

Part 1.

Poseur.  Posturing.  Putting up a front.  I celebrate them all. The simple ability to present something other than reality.  Most of us are pretty decent at it.  I am exceptional.

I noticed it at a very young age.  It began as an observation, the kind of learned reaction a kid makes without making a conscious effort.  People, I found, framed their judgments of me, or anyone for that matter, based on perception.  I was an intuitive child and quickly made the connection that this perception was malleable.  Something I could shape to my own liking.  Almost a manipulation, but I think that is too harsh a word.

Everyone does it to some extent.  Imagine a world without this.  Even an hour would be unbearable.  Every person you meet, every interaction requiring a perfectly unfiltered presentation of self.  Impossible.  I can’t even imagine it.

Some of this is good of course.  I don’t think I would have a single friend if my true thoughts and emotions were broadcast without restraint.  I’ve often wondered what it would be like if we were all required to wear one of those electronic reader boards hung across our chest.  Every thought streamed live for the world to see.  Horrifying, of course.

The filtering, I imagine then, is a gift from God.  A way to give us some semblance of normalcy until our thoughts and motives are fully redeemed.  But like most things, we’ve taken a good concept and marched it out to the fringes of ridiculous.  This tool, this filtering, has been applied with such persistence, we’re left with no spot uncovered.  Every aspect tinted and hued with layers of pious presentation.

Success at it comes in varying degrees.  It is a highly individual thing.  The image I may try so dearly to present will likely seem absurd and senseless to the next person in line.  I suppose there is common ground.  We all want to appear righteous, stable, etc.  But those are not very interesting.

This presentation, this posturing, nearly always follows my idols.  In college, this was outdoor sports.  Skiing, climbing and mountain biking formed the holy trinity of my worship.  Therefore, it was essential that I be known as someone who excelled at those activities.  And this is where it gets ridiculous.

Take the climbing gym for example.  With a room full of girls, and perhaps worse, fellow climbers, it was a scene that begged for a well thought out presentation. This required great skill.  A JV attempt would land you in the crowd with the painfully obvious strivers.  Those poor souls, bless their hearts, who understand the goal but never learned the rules.  Their game is obvious.  People can see they are trying to be noticed.

Not me.  This is varsity territory.  The ability to perfectly manage your presentation while conveying a tone of carefree ease.  If done well the audience walks away thinking, wow, he is such a strong climber and it doesn’t even look like he’s trying.

The details are sickening.  I clearly recall not wanting to climb the same day as a weight lifting workout because I knew that I would not climb as well.  Partly this was for reasons of personal competitiveness, but far too much was simply a fear people would see me and judge that I was not a strong climber.

There are more.  Recently, after a long 2 hours of climbing I was ready for a burnout climb.  This entails ascending a very easy route repeatedly until your muscles are utterly fried.  The problem, of course, is that by the end you look very pathetic.  Struggling and sweating to ascend a route a 7 year old could climb blindfolded.  Amidst this laboring, a thought crossed my mind.  What if the people watching me didn’t know I had already climbed for two hours?  What if they thought this was simply the best I could do.

For a moment, I even wondered if there was a way I could say something to my belayer that would inadvertently inform those watching that I really had climbed for a long time.  Something like – wow, nothing like a 2 hour session to really burn the muscles. Said with just enough volume to allow those nearby to hear.  Sickening.

Perhaps this sounds completely absurd.  Maybe you are one of those lucky few graced with complete unconcern for the perception of your peers.  But I petition a test.  Recall for a moment the last group photo you’ve been in.  When you saw it for the first time, who did you look at first?  Yourself.  Which is odd, because you are quite aware of what you look like.  The only explanation for this priority is that you were concerned about how others would perceive you.  Did you look good?

The Christian version is even more entertaining.  It is also much easier, mostly because the image we are trying to present is a worthy goal. Faithfulness, love, charity, mercy, these are widely admired goals.  Certainly more so than looking good in the climbing gym.  Because of this, we let our guard down.  Why doubt someone’s presentation of faithfulness if it is something we are deeply striving for ourselves?  And the circle goes round.

Group prayer time is the most obvious.  I admit I am not a prayer warrior.  Well, it depends on the situation. Yes, if I am praying for someone or they are praying for me, I certainly pay attention.  But group prayer is a very different animal. Within seconds my mind is off wandering about, exploring such profound questions like if I put enough topspin on my serve at volleyball last night.

This daydreaming generally does not impress fellow Christians.  Believers are supposed to really enjoy this group prayer stuff.  Therefore, I developed a simple technique.

With eyes closed and bowed heads, the skill is subtle but well perfected. Often it isn’t even words.  A simple ‘Hmmm’ will do.  Just enough for people to think you are paying attention.  The timing is everything.  It is the same skill that allows you to say ‘oh, interesting’, during a conversation that you mentally checked out of 10 minutes ago.  Say it at the wrong time and it can be very awkward.

The key is to listen for the pause at the end of a prayer.  The subtle cue to snap to attention and offer a quiet affirmation.  A smooth ‘yes Lord’, whispered right after someone offers a particularly moving petition.  It works very well.  People will think you are holy.

Bible verses work as well.  Though I’m nearly always the one hold the façade.  Wrapped up in some invigorating theological conversation, someone will offer a bible reference to support their point.  Cruelly, these people who have a much better memory than I, will reference an entire chapter.

Something like hey you know it’s just like in Romans 9.  And they just leave it.  No reference, no hint about what the chapter entails.  I’m just supposed to know.  I cannot admit I haven’t the foggiest idea what is in Romans chapter 9.  I must maintain the image, of course, so I just agree. Yeah, you’re right, totally like Romans 9.

My absolute favorite is the bible search.  We’re all sitting in church, the pastor takes the stage and asks the congregation to turn to Nehemiah.  The anxiety begins.  New Christians are allowed to take their time.  But for the rest of us there is a strict standard.

10 seconds. That’s it.  Any longer and the old lady sitting next me begins making assumptions.  Well, he certainly hasn’t read the Old Testament anytime recently. Gosh, I wonder if he can even find Genesis?

My movements are calm and collected as if to say, oh yeah, I was just in Nehemiah last week during my morning devotionals. I know exactly where it is.  I’ll just browse a few other OT books on the way. Meanwhile my mind races frantically, wishing I’d learned that stupid Sunday school song Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus…

10 seconds passes, I haven’t found it.  This is the point of no return.  Close the bible.  Place it on the floor.  Pick up my notebook.  This was the plan all along, I really prefer to take notes anyways.  Crisis averted, my holiness intact.  The old woman looks over with an approving smile.

To be continued, hopefully with some resolution…


Comment from Heather
Time February 10, 2009 at 12:59 pm

What a great topic, so often these images of what we want others to believe don’t allow us to be free, it can also at times create others to feel as if they don’t measure up.

I remember when I was about 13 or 14 years old listening to a friend from church tell me a story about how God was speaking to her, now I had heard this phrase before, ” God told me ” yet she was so specific.

This left me wondering, did all christians hear from God in such a clear manner? So I started asking others about moment’s they had heard from God- the people I talked with where so confident, there was no doubt that God had been speaking to them. For me this created a huge problem, I had doubt, I did not hear from God- this doubt crept in. God must not want to talk to me, so many times I cried out to Him but I never heard an answer. Why God did you speak to my friend Shannon but not to me? I believed there was a God and I knew He could speak to people, so my only conclusion was that He was not speaking to me, that God did not want me. How easy it would have been for a friend to take the time to explain how God speaks, maybe they didn’t even know. Now I know God speaks in many ways but so ofen we speak our christianease not realizing how we make God seem so unatainable.

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