The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 14 Boxes

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J.D. Salinger dealt with criticism by becoming a recluse. First, however, even though he was from a privileged background, he enlisted in the infantry. He experienced the battlefields of WWII and the death camps. He returned to America with The Catcher in the Rye, a novel about phoniness. At the height of his literary fame, Salinger became fed up with the criticism and superficiality of society and dropped out. He stopped publishing. He always wrote, but he did it without the constricting effects of critics.

I don’t recommend withdrawal into a hermitage. Overly constricting self-expression is like placing a fish in too small an aquarium; it will not be able to grow to its full potential. Remember, we grow by relating to other humans, so I recommend staying engaged—but with good boundaries. I happen to make a living helping people out of self- and other-imposed boxes.

Sometimes it stresses people to reveal their secrets. Sometimes I feel stressed and wonder if perhaps I should be more hardheaded and opaque like Macky the monkey. Maybe I should hunker down into my own box. Maybe I should be an enigma, a mysterious man. Sometimes it’d be a relief to stay on the surface. But transparency is honest and intimate. People appreciate honesty; that is a fact. But civility and grace need to temper honesty.

Usually, when I ask people how they are, I really want to know; it’s not just a social pleasantry, especially when I’m in my office. When I shut my office door, sit face-to-face with clients, and ask, “How are you?” what I mean is, “Please tell me, in detail, what’s troubling you, what you’re confused about, and what you feel a press to talk about.” They don’t need to play somebody who they think is acceptable or who they think I want them to be.

I’ve only met one person who wrote without critics in mind. His name was Dick (really! I’m not trying to be funny or passive-aggressive), and he lived out of his old sedan. He accumulated scores of journals in his car trunk. After someone broke into the trunk and stole his journals, I asked if the loss didn’t just kill him. Dick said no. As he was a nomad, I wanted to think he was crazy or lying. It’d kill me to lose years of work. I wondered if Dick wrote for the purest reason of all, just to get it out, and never sought an audience, not even his future self. I couldn’t think of a more liberating way to write—and I did not have any desire to write that way. But it forced me to wonder: why did I need an audience? Was it my need to connect with others or to have them validate me? Was that narcissistic or normal? Why should anyone care what my experience of life is? I’m going with “normal,” as it’s so common, falling in the fat part of the Normal Curve. Most of what we write will be read either by someone else or by our future selves. I think Dick the Nomad was the outlier.

      Salinger wrote for his own eyes only until the day he escaped his critics via death, and we now await the publication of his manuscripts. Still, he knew there was a future audience of critics. That had to have mattered. Observation modifies the observed, even if we are only imagining a future observation as Salinger did and as I am doing.

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