One of my favorite songs, if not my favorite song, from last year was a song called “Cool Kids” that reminded me somewhat painfully of my youth. It is probably no surprise to anyone reading this that I am not nor have ever been particularly cool. There are two basic reasons for this, the first that I am often (and usually at the worst times) incredibly awkward, and the other that not only are social skills not an area of particular strength, but nothing about my life or demeanor is effortless and casual, but rather it is fairly obvious to even a casual observer of my life that effort is massive and continual, even in areas where I am particularly not skilled or successful. Part of being cool, as the song itself ironically comments on, is the fact that one appears as if everything is alright even when it is not, and keeping up with appearances is something that I do not do particularly well. Given all of this, it is not surprising at all that I was not a cool kid, and am not a particularly cool adult, except perhaps to undemanding audiences that appreciate sincere friendliness, gentleness, and kindness, and do not mind that it comes with a lot of awkwardness.
When I was a teenager and young adult, one of the celebutantes that was particularly popular in general culture at the time was a young heiress named Paris Hilton. It always bothered me that she felt it necessary to play dumb, because it was obvious to me in looking at her in any one of her activities, whether it was her short music career (which made her a one-hit wonder with her song “Stars Are Blind”) or her commercials for Hardees/Carls Jr. or her role in the reality television shows that she was not stupid. No, she played stupid and used her looks to manipulate men (which is not that uncommon—many young women learn very early on in life that a great deal of power, and danger, come from their looks), but she was a very canny woman when it came to social intelligence. I did not begrudge her this intelligence, even if it is not an area where I consider myself particularly gifted, but I respected her, and would have respected her more had she not pretended to be anything other than a very attractive and savvy woman who wanted fame to go along with the wealth that was hers by birth. The fact that she chose to gain fame by pretending to be a clueless ditz was unfortunate, but it was not her fault if other people were willing to laugh at her like she was some sort of poor little rich girl bereft of common sense when she was far smarter than most of the people who made fun of her in error. There is no question that she was cool, but also no question that it was built largely on artifice.
At some point in life, I came to the realization that I was not willing to do what it took to be a cool kid. Namely, I was not going to pretend to be stupid (if such a thing was possible), and I was not going to pretend as if my life of effort and continual struggle was effortless and easy. I was not going to pretend to have more money or style than I possessed, although I would not pretend to have less either. Rather, at some point in life, and I am not really sure when it ceased to be an unconscious choice and became a conscious one, I chose to be myself, warts and all, only limited by my efforts to follow my moral commitments and my concern and regard for other people, so that I would protect them, if necessary, from myself. This choice was not made out of a belief that it would be easy to do so, or that it would necessarily help in my own personal longings and quests, which are sufficiently well-known and obvious that they do not require mention. Rather, I made a decision to try to be as good as was possible with all of my own strength and all of the help that I could receive from God and others, from attention to behaviors and habits and environment and family background, and from the encouragement and accountability of those around me. That decision made it impossible to pretend to be good, whatever I might have wished.
That does not mean that I begrudge anyone else wanting to be cool. We all want to be liked, we all want love and respect and honor. We think, often rightly, that it is easiest to be liked by others in a superficial way when we place few or no demands on them except for the love of a good time. Who needs to know about our private struggles and agony anyway? We recognize that others will look funny at us if we show our quirks and eccentricities, that they will not give us the benefit of any doubt if they think we are odd or different, and that any shortcoming or weakness or lack in our life, whether from our family background (growing up poor, for example) will often be ruthlessly exploited and ridiculed. As a result, we hide, we deny, we put on a false front, we pretend that life is going smoothly whether it is or not. When we see how others really live, it can often be a shock. I remember as a fifth-grader that I was ruthlessly tormented by a group of girls (this has happened quite often in the course of my life, and I’m not really sure why), and one day I happened to be grocery shopping in the Sav-A-Lot (which was the absolute lowest level grocery store, frequented by people who were extremely poor, like my own family) I happened to see one of the lower ranking girls in the gang that made fun of me on a daily basis. We were both rather shocked to recognize each other, but despite my own embarrassment, I was glad at least that she never saw fit to make fun of me again, and I never felt it necessary to point out that she was just as poor as I was to our immensely snobby and class-conscious classmates. I suppose that for all of my failings with ladies, that I have always sought to be a gentleman, even to those people who have not been particularly nice to me. Someday it might pay off, even if it’s not the sort of thing that makes one a cool kid.