I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself, and myself only.
Wrestling with debilitating and relentless anxiety is, I realize, a journey; there is no finish line where anxiety is left behind.
And there is only a tortured peace in knowing and having the compassion of those who understand because those who understand, we must recognize, share the same prison.
Anxiety, for me, is the tension between who we are in our bones as that contrasts with the expectations of whatever cultural or subcultural norms in which we exist.
This brings me once again to my redneck past.
Born, having grown up, and living as well as working in the South for almost 55 years, I am simultaneously a white, heterosexual man of the South and in many ways an outsider in that same homeland.
In my late teens and early 20s, mostly during the formative years of college, I had to confront who I was in my bones that did not match the racism and fervent, evangelical religiosity of South Carolina.
When I opened my mouth then, when I open my mouth now and utter the same words I write almost daily, anyone within ear shot has the same recognition that my dear friend and brief mentor Joe Kincheloe had the first time we spoke on the phone, “Why, you are from the South aren’t you”—in a drawl that sounded very much like home to me.
Joe passed away far too young in 2008, and we co-authored a book in 2006 as part of his limitless kindness as an academic who had struggled to find his place in academia—where from the South to the Midwest and then the Northeast (before fleeing to Canada), Joe confessed to me that he was routinely marginalized for his Southernness, notably his drawl that I share.
Joe and I share something else that is very important—an Otherness beneath the powerful veneer of our tremendous privileges of race, gender, sexuality, and academic proclivities.
I am not completely sure of how this happened for Joe, but I know that coming to recognize and understand my Otherness began to build in me the humility I needed to avoid falling victim to my privilege—to avoid believing that my accomplishments were more the result of unique effort or qualities in me than my unwarranted privilege.
Like battling anxiety, however, that is a journey, not a destination.
Especially in high school, I found myself nearly physically repelled by organized religion—drawn again by my bones to George Carlin and later Kurt Vonnegut for their artful deconstructing of moral and ethical ways of being that transcend religiosity or even claims of a Higher Power.
I was being told (and still am being told) in the South that without accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I was a sinner destined for hell—living morally and ethically simply wasn’t enough. The baseball bat of dogma batters basic human decency, you see.
These formative years built my lifelong repulsion for hypocrisy and judgment, coercion—both in my own ways of being and in the behavior of others (especially those in power).
My lingering drawl tells people without doubt I am a Southerner, but since at least my teen years, I have been a stranger in that homeland.
And then in 2002, I moved from teaching English in my hometown’s high school to a university less than an hour away.
Unlike my high school students, however, my college students were occasionally not from the South.
In one of those first years, a student who claimed I was her favorite professor told me during a conference in my office, “I know you are smart, but you don’t sound smart.”
And that resonates with me still, when I hear myself teaching in a blur of passion about that day’s discussion turn a one-syllable word into two. I find myself now stopping and confessing how my redneck self just slipped out of my mouth. It has become a self-deprecating joke, one that elicits laughter, but is yet more veneer to cover my anxiety, my low self-esteem born out of that relentless anxiety.
I know I am smart, but I don’t sound smart.
It’s a journey.
I left teaching high school where I was a badgered non-believer and evolving Marxist to find myself a working-class academic in a selective liberal arts university where otherwise enlightened souls trample on that redneck past.
I don’t belong here—this is my internal monologue on repeat, a not-so-soothing soundtrack beneath the other perpetual internal dialogue with myself that is anxiety (I narrate tales of impending doom endlessly to myself).
As I was recently talking with a rare wonderful who understands (remember the tortured peace of that understanding), I shared about my old-man coming to understand that we must not sacrifice the good at the alter of the perfect.
On my journey, I am trying very hard to honor those I love by being my genuine Self, although that still creates bitter anxiety within the cultural and subcultural norms in which I live and breath.
I don’t belong here (I think, hearing two syllables in “here”), but it is the only here I have. And it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.
And seeing, embracing that good is a rare antidote to the prison of anxiety.
Part of that good for me has been taking the path of recognizing my otherness that has saved me from the callousness of privilege.
I am lucky for the people in my life who see and love the genuine me, but in a perfect world, Joe would still be here so we could talk about this unselfconsciously and laughing.
Joe Kincheloe passed away December 19, 2008.
For Further Reading
With Drawl, Laura Relyea
What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison