Dummy. That was my nickname when I was a boy (around ages 7 to 12). It was given to me by my step-dad: a Vietnam-vet and ex-POW, a raging alcoholic, a failed hermit and an abuser. At that age, the nickname bored into me and told me something I grew up believing was true, despite evidence to the contrary.
As a young man, I devoted my life to hiding from what I thought was a deep truth: that I was stupid. I developed behaviors surrounding this deep dark secret of mine. The most prominent is the rage I would feel if I thought someone was questioning my intellectual capacity. The most ingrained was the inability to allow people to get close. I kept the world at a distance, because I didn’t want to be dumb, but believed I was and no one could find that out.
In high school, I began meditation and focusing on growing and repairing the damaged parts of myself. The latter I’ve carried with me my whole life. The former, I struggle with off and on in life (I feel like I’m not alone there, however). As a result of both, I’ve developed a habit of paying attention to my intent in most every situation. It helps me keep focus within rather than pointing my finger at the world. As a result, I improve. I am a better version of myself each day.
Looking back on myself as a young man and my reactions to people who appeared to me to be questioning my intellect, I see a major difference. Before, even if in jest, I would react to people by fully withdrawing, obsessing for days without sleep. That person, even if for a short time, became my enemy. Today, I have one of those jesty-centered friendships with a guy I’ve known for several years. You know those types of relationships: it’s all about who can get the best rib-shot in. We have serious moments, but most of the time we spend together is criticizing each other’s (real or imagined) flaws… and laughing about it. He pokes at my intellectual capacity more than anyone ever has in my life. After knowing him for five years, I only just made this realization only yesterday: that his joking critique didn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, somewhere along the line, somehow — without noticing that it actually happened — I became confident in my abilities to understand, to learn… to be smart.
As I sit here now, I know I am intelligent and it has nothing to do with my intellectual successes in my life. I dropped out of high school, thinking I was incapable of rising to anything higher than beating video games. But I passed my GED exams in the 97th percentile, and a year before my class graduated. I taught myself how to program web pages, graduated college summa cum laude, and so on. None of those successes had anything to do with my intellectual capacity, and had everything to do with how I feel about myself.
Striving to be authentic, looking within for the answers to our biggest questions and learning to not judge (ourselves and the world around us) are the keys to personal growth. I feel like I want to say that patience is a factor, because it takes time to reprogram yourself, but I cannot because I don’t know when this change happened. I don’t remember the last time I felt horrible because someone seemed to imply I might be a little stupid.
Now, I can laugh when someone pokes fun at me in that way (if the joke is funny, that is — if it isn’t, then I get to poke back).