boy covering face with hand one eye peeking

I don’t know about you, but last week’s post really got me thinking.  It led me to the realization that all of us, to some degree, are duplicitous, with corners of our lives that don’t seem to fit the whole.

Generally patient people may find themselves yelling aloud in irritation at others while driving.

Encouraging people may wind up consistently assuming the worst where certain family members are concerned.

And otherwise kind people gossip about celebrities.

These areas would seem to be exceptions to the rule in many of our lives. And when someone points them out – or when we read something like last week’s post – we easily recognize that disparity in ourselves. For many, that is enough to prompt us to take steps in bringing that anomalous part of ourselves into harmony with the rest. It’s a process. But we are readily made aware of what’s wrong and where new choices need to be made.

However, those glaring anomalies aren’t what I want to talk about today. Rather, I want to talk about something much more insidious: a kind of duplicity that does not hide in shadows, but rather is adept at lurking in the light. And unless we commit to honing our skills of self-awareness, and then become ruthless in rooting it out, it will continue as an ever-present doppelganger, lingering about unnoticed – and siphoning happiness, fulfillment and peace from our lives.

Again, last week, the discussion centered on the ugly practice of celebrity criticism and gossip, and what that might reveal about us when we engage. Now, let’s let the pendulum swing the other direction. Consider the following behaviors or activities:

Reaching over to hold the hand of your spouse or significant other.

Working hard and being responsible with your money.

Inviting guests to parties that you plan and host in your home.

Studying hard and keeping up your grades.

Donating to a local charity.

It’s so much nicer to be known as a person who does wonderful things than to be considered a gossip, isn’t it?  Gossiping (or lying or being mean) are obvious and ugly marks upon our character, whereas the activities listed above cause us to be known as a kind or diligent or gregarious person.

I started playing the piano when I was three years old. I can still remember the sense of wonder I had at seeing the individual hammers move against the strings inside the piano when I touched each key, the smell of old wood and felt and some unknown magical elements. It felt like a secret meant just for me.

Growing up, all of my siblings were required to take piano lessons at some point. They wept through their mandatory practices, staring at a white wind-up timer that seemed to them to have stopped somehow. The silent sulking and sniffling were interrupted occasionally by disjointed plucking on the keys and pleading interjections of “Is it almost time yet?”

Then there would be me – lingering somewhere nearby, acting cool and casual, all the while hoping my mother might give in this time, freeing them from their musical prison and leaving me to have their remaining time on the bench. I really could never get enough of it.

Jump ahead a few years.

I grew up in an environment that adamantly taught that if you were able to do a thing, you were then obligated to do that thing (“To whom much is given, much shall be required”). Guilt and shame were primary tactics, underscored with threats that God would take your abilities away from you through mental or physical incapacitation if you did not comply.

In junior high and high school, this teaching was applied to intramural talent competitions. In short, I was told that what I should do is to enter every category of which I was capable (generally 10 – 12), and that if I did not, I ran the very likely risk of being maimed by the Almighty.

This caused playing the piano – which had always seemed simple and thrilling and magical to me until then – to be smeared with a film of greasy muck.  I was no longer playing out of a love of music.  I was playing out of guilt or fear, with unreasonably high pressure not only to play – but to win.

Do I seem to have gotten off track? I haven’t, I promise.  Stick with me.

If you were to have listened to me play Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor during one of those competitions, you may have been wowed.  You may have thought I was quite prodigious.  You may have applauded enthusiastically and told me how incredibly I had played the piece. And you might have clapped me on the shoulder as I walked away with my first-place trophy, and told me how much I deserved it.

On the surface, my playing might have been considered beautiful – the combined result of natural talent, passion and hard work.  There would have been no way for you to know that inside of me was not quite as beautiful. In fact, it was often not beautiful at all. I was miserable. I’d won – and yet, during those times, I’d lost everything I loved about music. It had all been replaced with stress, resentment at the people who’d coerced me into playing through guilt, pity for other contestants who were great but hadn’t won, and a host of other dark and conflicting feelings.

If you were to hear my playing the piano for my 90-year-old grandmother in her living room some Christmas Eve, you might hear a simple version of “O Christmas Tree” or hymnal versions of the old standards. You might think it was sweet, but not terribly impressive. But you would feel something difficult to explain. You would sense somehow that the music was bigger than it seemed, filling the room and connecting hearts in a way my flawless eighth-grade performance of Rachmaninoff could never have done.

You see, I can play the piano.  And I can play it well and receive accolades and make the people clap – all while my soul is filled with gunk. Or I can play it – maybe even the same exact piece – in a different context, out of joy or as a gift to the listener or as an expression of my heart. The unperceptive ear would distinguish no difference between the two. And that is exactly what allows this strain of duplicity to exist for so long, unnoticed.

Here’s the crux: it all boils down to motive.

I’ve had my motives questioned more times in life than I can possible recount. I’ve had people rip me to shreds when I’d done my best with pure intention, and I’ve had them praise my achievements while I died inside.

Just this week, I posted a new picture on my personal Facebook profile.  Over that seemingly insignificant act, I had those who said that the picture clearly exuded a “genuine light” I have inside – and those who said it showed me to be self-absorbed and arrogant.  So which was it? How could the same image of me evoke such opposing sentiments?

I know the truth of how I felt when that particular picture was taken. In this case, I had been feeling truly peaceful and happy. But it got me to thinking about all of this, because I know first hand that what appears beautiful on the outside – isn’t always an accurate reflection of what is happening on the inside.

So you reached out to hold someone’s hand. Beautiful gesture? Perhaps. Did you take their hand to comfort them, reassure them, let them know how much you care? Or did you take their hand as a subtle reminder of your “ownership” of that person in public?

Do you work hard out of dedication and strong ethics? Or are you working so much to avoid dealing with bitterness or unforgiveness you’ve let fester at home? Are you spending carefully because of wisdom and thrift – or out of fear?

Do you throw those parties because you love bringing people joy – or because you are afraid of your thoughts when you are alone or not perpetually busy? Is it because you love to provide opportunities for your guests to build connections and deepen relationships – or because you crave the attention?

The truth about personal motives is that only we really ever know what they are – and that only if we spend concerted time in self-reflection to “know thyself.” But intentionally keeping tabs on our motives is difficult to make a priority when the world around us is applauding whatever it is we are doing. It becomes all too easy to remain rather Machiavellian in our approach.  “If everyone else is happy – if it seems good and has a decent outcome – what does it matter why we do it?”

I submit that it does matter. Duplicity erodes the soul. It can remain a silent poltergeist for years – decades even – before deciding to upend the furniture and tear down the walls.

Resentment builds beneath smiles.

Manipulation masquerades as charm.

Desperate loneliness laughs loudly.

Until it doesn’t.

Until it can’t any longer.

If this strikes a chord with you, let me suggest two strategies that can help us get to the heart of the matter where hidden motives are concerned:

1.) As simple as it seems, get in the habit of asking yourself: “Why am I doing this?” If the readily apparent reason you answer with is a positive one, great! You know you’re on point. If there is hesitation, or if a “negativity bubble” begins to form inside – stop and let it burst. Look at it for what it is. This does not mean that we need to second-guess everything we do. But spot checking with that simple question can do wonders across the board. In fact, if asked regularly enough, it just becomes part of the subconscious process involved in everything we do. Being honest with ourselves is every bit as important as being honest with others.

2.) Cultivate times of silence into your life.  We have become a noise and distraction addicted society.  But it’s in those times of silence that our true thoughts have sufficient space to surface. This is, in fact, part of what scares us about silence – and also why it is so vitally important.

Being honest with ourselves is every bit as important as being honest with others.

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