So when I was a little kid, I had an imaginary friend named Francine. (Okay, what kind of five-year-old comes up with a name like Francine for a pretend playmate? Maybe that speaks to why I had to make one up. But at least I came up with a better moniker than my brother-in-law, who named his fantasy pal Speedy Buns. Anyway…) Francine was the perfect and loyal friend. She was happy to do whatever I wanted to do, she always let me win at jacks, and she was ever available when no one else could play outside. Best yet, no matter what I did or what I said, it was A-okay with her.
These days, fantasy friends are not quite so benign. They lurk on Facebook and Twitter. They read our blogs and spy on us from the virtual pages of our high school yearbooks. Call them the imaginary friends for the new Millenium, what I call the “If only they could see me now” folks, the ones who set the bar for our iconic selves.
It makes me wonder: How many of our choices, how much of our carefully constructed outward personna is dependent upon pleasing these imaginary tyrants? All those eyes! Those wagging fingers! Do they add another layer of angst to our decisions? Make us stick with what’s socially correct on the one hand? Or prevent us from exploring options that our fantasy friends might find prosaic — or somehow impolitic — on the other?
But let’s back up. When last we met her, a reader we called Jane was angsting like crazy about the prospect of having been offered the job of her dreams — when she already had a job she loved. Her dilemma? Making a decision without hurting anyone’s feelings. Deciding for Yourself, as Shannon wrote, can put the best of us in one hell of a pickle.
There’s also that whole issue of being judged — that no matter what we choose or do, we end up looking over our shoulder, expecting the sidelong glance from Mom, the raised eyebrow from the next cubicle over or the snide comment from our supposed best friend.
And then there’s the hunt for the Iconic self, how in the process of the search, many of us get trapped by the icon – the swashbuckling reporter, the fearless photog, the edgy writer, the rail-thin supermodel, the uber-wealthy CEO– and make life choices that fit the image, images that are often dictated by women’s media that tend to glorify the impossible. And then we feel disappointed, if not betrayed, when the icon is out of reach.
Connect the dots here and what I think you find is a deep-seated need for approval, something we women were trained to seek out ever since we were little girls. (Our male counterparts, for some reason, not so much. And I’m not sure why.) From hugs from Mommy and Daddy, to stickers from our first grade teachers, to acceptance from our adolescent peers, every step of the way we’ve been raised to worship at the church of “What will people think?” Add in those fantasy friends and the need to gain their approval, too, and you’ve got yourself in a whole jar full of pickles.
Live in a loft with an easel or your laptop — or the house with a picket fence? Trade dreams of jumping out of airplanes and exploring the world to stay home to teach first grade? Should we skew acceptable — or artsy? Side A or Side B? All depends on whom you ask.
And the bitch of it is this: No matter what we choose, someone out there from one side of the aisle or the other is wagging an imaginary finger at us. Too feminist? Not feminist enough? Off to grad school on a boatload of loans? Or a safe nine-to-fiver in a cubicle? The thing is, no matter which side the judgment comes from, it can be equally destructive — and narrow-minded as well.
But really, who cares? Clearly, the grown-up thing to do is to dismiss the critics, one and all. But for most of us, it’s easier said than done.
The subtext of several of last week’s posts and comments had to do with the whole passion versus paycheck dilemma, about the tension between the real world and meaningful work, about whether or not the two are mutually exclusive — and whether following your passion is solely the province of the elite. (For the record, I think it is not.) Taken together, I have to wonder if the underlying message in all of this is that, when it comes to finding purpose in our lives — whether it’s putting food on the table or saving the world — it’s all about how we define it for ourselves.
Which has to do with no one’s approval but our own.
Meanwhile, about Jane? She took the dream job, and has yet to look back. As for Francine? Hadn’t thought of her for years. But I think I could use a friend like her. Couldn’t we all.