The Lie of the Filler-Word

Definition. Categorization. Titles. Lists. Groups.

They are part of the mechanism that keeps the world moving and prevents our brains from being inundated by free floating facts, names, places and data points of endless variety. A world without functional categories brings to mind the horrifying image of a desktop, its background obscured by overlapping documents, pictures, videos and programs, and not a single folder in sight. That or anarchy. #basicallythesamething

Hopefully we agree that categorizing can be good and necessary. But there are also some places that it can be bad–when we categorize incorrectly, or assume that one category precludes another, or use categories to separate ourselves from other people. But the one I have been reflecting on most is self-categorization. This form of the practice can be particularly detrimental, while equal parts absurd and ineffectual. Maybe you don’t think you categorize yourself, but you may have used a sneaky variation of this deceptively comforting catch-phrase:

“I’m the _______ one.”

All my life, in an effort to find-my-place in a social setting, I have swung between any number of filler-words for that blank line–smart, quiet, Christian, thoughtful, service-oriented, kind, deep, prepared, motherly, politically savvy, tomboyish, down-to-earth, younger, go-getting, creative, giving, stylish, ladylike.

Every time, with every new filler, it felt like I was really going somewhere and had finally hit on the category that would take care of my insecurities. It was an instant confidence boost, a handy injection of energy. It was quick, easy and gave me permission to embody the filler-word as purely as possible (read: become a caricature and the leading expert in self-avoidance). But I also knew that it was temporary; I kept running into the reality that someone else often embodied my filler-word more fully. Even “I am the introverted one” couldn’t stand, and it’s in my blog title.

Having a filler-word stripped from me went something like this: If I was blithely walking around as the Thoughtful-One, but someone else remembered a birthday I didn’t…or was socializing as the Introverted-One and someone said that I wasn’t all-that-introverted, I was thrown into a miniature, very public crisis of personality. And God-forbid I run into someone who could identify and liked stripping my filler-word from me. #ithappens #welcometohell

If this sounds truly crazy, I have found countless, increasingly evolved variations of the filler-word practice. In a conversation with a friend, both of us admitted that we research masters’ programs like mad when we are feeling insecure, regardless of whether we intend to actually attend. In theory, we could be the Higher Degreed-Ones. And that theory is just enough to keep the insecurity at bay.

Now, there is nothing wrong with getting another degree, or being thoughtful, or embracing any of your attributes, a fact which allows this filler-word practice to work for a while. But dashing from one filler-word to the next is not unlike the behavior of a drug addict, searching for her next fix. The filler-word won’t (directly) destroy your body and is intensely internal, making it much harder to spot. It can go on for years, eventually defining decisions that become very-bads when you realize they were made based on a false sense of self. From the filler-word come its self-deprecating daughter, “I’m not the ______ one,” and its contrary son, “I could never____________.” It is the grand thesis of a self-confining, boxy life strategy that puts the insta-brakes on real momentum. It is the very embodiment of a hamster wheel.

In all honesty, I don’t have a cozy, coffee-mug tagline to both explain and defeat this tendency. I only know that I have done it for years, and it’s never worked. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result, consider me on parole from the crazy house. Is there some catch-all word that I was missing, some other phrase that can replace it? I don’t think it’s that simple.

My most clarified moments, the moments of greatest lucidity, are those when I accept that I am a bundle of different capabilities, desires, questions and tendencies. That everything I’ve been through has led to this moment, which means I’m exactly where I need to be. That I am made in the image of Someone far greater than my fear. That I am exactly the one-of-a-kind, human smorgasbord He intended. That I am necessary without having to prove it.

That I am way too much for a mere filler-word.

When I stop filtering my reactions to life, I am actually living. Sometimes, getting there means stopping my thoughts midstream and choosing to think about something anything else. Sometimes it means doing exactly what my current filler-word is telling me I shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing positions in my seat, and resetting the moment. It might mean something different for you.

But to all those who play this unrelenting, losing game: You don’t need filler-words. God has already decided you are way better than that.

You just need to believe it yourself.

Yours, A.I.A.L.

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