I have three, young children – 8, 6, and 5. While they are generally wonderful, over the years I’ve noticed something remarkable about their behavior. When they are alone with me, their behavior is sweet and gentle. I rarely hear them whine. When they want something, they ask politely. When I say, “No” or “Not now,” there’s no hissy fit. They’re eager to cuddle or be playful, and it always makes me treasure those times of being alone with them, one-on-one.
As soon as someone else is introduced in the mix, whether that’s my wife or another sibling, something rather remarkable happens. The gentle playfulness tends to subside to an attitude that’s a little more aggressive or needy.
I noticed this in the ever subtlest of ways this morning. As I was ushering my kids to get into the van so they could go on an errand with my wife, I asked my five-year-old son if he wanted me to help him lean his seat back. At first, there was no reply. Then he gave this tough guy response and nodded almost dismissively. I thought, “this is so odd. If we were alone, his reply would be sweet and gentle. But in the midst of his older sisters, this little guy (he’s a small kid) feels like he has to be some sort of macho.”
I can remember a few times in my childhood when my mom went away on a trip and my dad and I spent time together. I remember on one particular occasion, my mom came back home, and I began acting up. I remember even cognitively wondering why I was acting so differently. It was like I recognized my behavior, but I couldn’t control it. It didn’t take long for my dad to call me out on it. “Why was your behavior so good when we were alone, and now that your mom is home, you’re all of the sudden acting up?”
I didn’t know.
Perhaps the reason we do this (and we all do it to some extent) is because we have to assume a role. In crowds, we have to play the part – the goofball, the class clown, the tough guy. We’re not just one-on-one. We’re in a group, and like Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.”
There was a kid in high school who was notorious for being the class clown. It seemed like everything he said was some sort of joke aimed at conjuring up laughs. One day a mutual friend was telling me how he had romantically asked her to prom. I was like, “What do you mean romantically? Is that even possible for him?” Anytime he was in a crowd, he assumed the role. He was so natural at playing his role, that when he was one-on-one, he was hardly recognizable.
Perhaps this is why many Christians don’t particularly like going to church. Instead of an authentic experience, they see people assuming a fake identity. Having been in ministry for over 12 years, it’s easy to recognize the people that do put on false pretenses week in and out. It’s easy to tell because the biggest offenders act very differently when their one-on-one as they do in a group setting. They are uncomfortable with their true self.
But you know what? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t do the same. I’m not saying I was a fraud, always pretending to be something that I wasn’t. But there were weeks, particularly those weeks that my relationship with God had drifted, that I put on a fake smile and a tough guy attitude, praying that my heart wouldn’t be exposed.
After a retreat last December, something became abundantly clear to me. The more fake I am, the more I am afraid of being exposed. The closer I am walking with Jesus, the more whole I am, and the more I am willing to repent of my sins, even publicly. Being authentic and open may seem like the most vulnerable place, but constantly being guarded and playing a role leaves us absolutely wiped out.
One more ecclesiastical observation I’ll share is this. Sometimes the people that are the most frustrated with the lack of authenticity in the church are the ones who wear the biggest masks. In many cases, the frustration that they project on others is a reflection of the frustration they feel in their own lives, behind their own masks, wallowing in exhaustion from projecting their own false self. The reason they frustratingly crave for others to be authentic is because they desire a safe place where they can finally reveal (and maybe even find) their true self.
Ah, if only we could just make people be more authentic. If only I could just tell my son to stop doing whatever it is he doesn’t realize he’s doing. “Get rid of the tough guy persona. Be more genuine.” It just doesn’t work that way.
So, as I walked away from the van pondering the interaction that just happened, I began to wonder how to solve this problem. I first started thinking about my own safeguards and the roles I play in group settings, even around my wife and kids. When is it that I feel more gentle, more whole, more like my public interactions reflect my true self without any facade? Generally, it’s after deeply profound encounters one-on-one with Jesus. It’s there in solitude where the layers are pulled away and I discover my real self.
This makes sense. How many times do we see major biblical characters get away from society in order to be with God? Moses spent forty years as an Egyptian prince, then he spent forty years tending sheep in the wilderness before returning to rescue His people.
Despite the necessity of Jesus’ ministry, He often got away from the crowds in order to be alone with His Father. On one occasion, He spent forty days alone in the wilderness fasting and praying.
We tend to think people mature through the work of ministry. God may use us mightily in a multitude, but He shapes us when we are alone with Him.
Perhaps this is the answer to correcting my children’s’ drastic change in behavior between their one-on-one interactions and group interactions. Hold on a second…
Sorry. I had to pause my writing to separate my kids who were fighting over the Wii.
What was I saying? Oh yes, every moment they spend together in a situation where they feel like they have to toughen their heart makes them feel more comfortable with that role, as though that is their normal self. The more those around them put on facades, the more they do the same – an endless cycle of falsehood. Maybe if they spent more one-on-one time with me, they would get to know their other more gentle self, and maybe that persona would come through more when they spent time with their siblings.
This is giving me hope. It’s time for me to turn off my computer and go sit on the porch with my daughter who needed to be separated from my son. And as much as she needs this one-on-one time with me, I need that solitude with my Heavenly Father. I’ll be a more authentic dad only when I find and am comfortable with my true self.