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When No One Is Watching

May 11, 2010

by Mawi Patten

What do you do when no one is watching?

Not the dirty things, like eating grapes after they fall on the floor, or picking your nose in the car, or squeezing pimples even though you know you shouldn’t. I don’t do any of those things, by the way.
I’m not talking about these unhygienic habits that you just don’t care to break. I’m also not really talking about the silly things, like singing in the shower, dancing in your car. In those cases, the worse case scenario is your roommate walks in on you singing into your hairbrush, or waltzing in unison to Dancing With the Stars, your arms locked in position with your imaginary dance partner, and you smile sheepishly, drop your arms and attempt an explanation of, “Uh, I was just… uh… uh…” and you remind yourself that in the future you really ought to schedule these song & dance sessions for when your roommates are out of town.

I’m not talking about the silly, or the yucky, but an elusive third category of secret behaviors. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but I believe there are things that we will only do when (we think) no one is watching, because they reveal more than we are ready for people to know about us. They point to our most intimate joys, our most fragile hope.

Inhibitions are an interesting thing. On the one hand, they serve a pretty essential purpose. They keep people from removing clothing in public, or inserting a “that’s what she said” joke at times when it really wouldn’t be appropriate, like job interviews or tea with your grandma. Truly, there is a time and a place for everything, and our inhibitions let us know when maybe this isn’t it.

But there are other scenarios when I think our (or maybe just my) inhibitions can cripple us (me). They stifle things which really ought to be shared with the world. They keep hidden our greatest talents, our most powerful sources of joy, our God-given uniqueness, all because we fear what other people might think.

This preoccupation with other people’s perceptions of us is powerful – it is a universal fear, and the reason we abide by our inhibitions. From there, the nature of the fear diverges along one of the following three paths – we do things in secret because we fear (1) shallow embarrassment, (2) deep shame, or (3) the incomprehensible, spirit-crushing, dream-swallowing loss of hope.

The hairbrush-as-microphone scenario falls into the first category. And the second category would include some heavier topics, like sin, sex, addictive behaviors… actions that we cling to in order to cope, but which are actually self-destructive. Or even things which there is no need to be ashamed of, but someone told us long ago that doing *blank* makes us dirty or less than.

But that elusive third category, it contains the gems, the precious jewels which we hold secret from the world, for fear they will be tarnished, scratched or taken away. We have these dreams or aspirations or talents, but we fear that we are the only ones who see the potential or the beauty. So, whatever our gem is, we remove it from its case only in private. We paint landscapes and stash the canvas under our bed, we write poems we refuse to show to anyone, we sing or play piano only when the apartment is empty. The worst case scenario we fear is that if someone were to walk in on us, they’d point and laugh, all the while we are pouring our heart into something we hope will someday be a masterpiece, or at least worthy of a spot on the refrigerator door. And the second-worst case scenario we fear is that the same someone walks in, grasps some small fraction of the joy we’ve poured into our activity, sees the minute potential of a gift to be developed, and we are now on the hook to do something about it.

Is it possible that we keep both the worst AND the best parts of ourselves a secret, as a mode of self-preservation? That we hide the things that make us feel ashamed, and we hide the things we hope are the most beautiful?

In posing this question here, I am giving away the fact that I have asked it of myself. As a person who has always been a little over-inhibited, I’ve got my share of ‘secrets’ hidden in the cave of my own insecurity, and I have learned that it is not until I am willing to carry them into the light that I am able to know whether it is lumps of coal or diamonds that I hold in my hands.

But here is something else I’ve learned: the earth goes on spinning and people go on moving even if my inhibitions have nailed my feet into the ground, or made it so that I will only dance where no one can see. It is not that the world needs me to take my hidden dance moves public, but that I am missing out on the joy and the freedom of participating, of risking. I feel more alive when I allow people to see me.

So again, I ask, what do you do when no one is watching? Maybe you write. Maybe you sing. Maybe you watch Top Gun and dream of flying planes. Maybe you read Martha Stewart magazines.
What are your secrets, the beautiful ones? And what would happen if someone found one of them out?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott E. McGhee permalink
    May 11, 2010 11:36 AM

    Well put Mawi. How often to we allow our selves to pass over opportunities to shine due to our own inhibitions! I recently saw an Anton Chekhov play titled “The Seagull” where one of the most endearing characters in the play, an old man named Soren, whom at the end of the play listed off all of these things that he had wanted to do in his life (i.e. be a writer, get married, be a great speaker, live in the city) none of which he ended up doing. This he said all with overtones of great remorse for a life, though filled with joys and pleasures of its own, was not a life lived to the fullest, and not the life that he had hoped it would be. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I for one do not wish to end up as “The Man Who Wanted” as Soren described his life to be.

    Another thought that I had while reading this, Mawi, is something that I think all of us are greatly guilty of. If in fact we are allowing our inhibitions to prevent us from actually expressing the things that we are passionate about and sharing the things that we are afraid to share, then are we not guilty of being selfish with the gifts we have been given? If we are given a gift that by sharing it can bring joy, instruction, comfort, peace, correction, etc. to the people around it, and yet we hold it to ourselves, does that not make us poor stewards of what we have? I do not even think it would be too much to say that if we feel at all that these things that we are afraid to share or do could in any way benefit our communities then we are responsible to those communities and to the world to share these things with them. Now the question remains: are we willing to accept that responsibility or will we allow things to continue as they are?

    Scott E. McGhee

  2. Alisa Kempf permalink
    May 11, 2010 3:41 PM

    i loved this, mawi. the idea that we keep the best and most precious parts of ourselves hidden is something i will most definitely be thinking about this week. lately, i have been considering which parts of myself need to be put to death, need to die with christ…but i am inspired to simultaneously ask which parts of myself need to be unearthed and kindled.

  3. Kyle permalink
    May 13, 2010 8:36 AM

    well put Mawi, a refreshing idea to explore our beautiful secrets :)


  4. Jeremiah Kim permalink
    May 14, 2010 12:43 PM

    For me its always been music and it’s been interesting to start exploring that now.
    Love your thoughtfulness, Maw.

  5. Graden Tonna permalink
    May 14, 2010 1:52 PM

    This reminds me of something I recently read by C.S. Lewis.

    “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like and ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” – The Weight of Glory

    You said it right when you stated that we are missing out on the joys and freedoms of taking risks. It is risky to present ourselves fully to others. Yet, then again, since we are promised life in the death of self (Matt. 16: 24-26), presenting ourselves fully is the safest place to be. This lack of passion is definitely attributed to the level of surrender to our Lord. As suggested by Lewis, it is easy to be content with the minimal level of joys we experience because we imagine that to pursue more would involve much uncertainty. This thinking is directly in contrast to what we claim to believe, that the only thing certain is that life is found solely in Jesus.
    We deny our humanness and therefore joy when we hide our gifts, not only because we were given our gifts for our and potentially others’ joy, but because we were created to BE human (a gift in its self) – in the likeness of God, but NOT God. In accepting our humanity, one can’t help but acknowledge an inherent need for God, which humbles and brings glory to His name and leaves us to experience the fulfilling joy and comfort under His wings, where neither fear nor anxiety exists (Ps. 91: 4-7).
    Thanks for your thoughts and perspective!

    Graden Tonna

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