Acceptance. I often analyze words among many other things and I when I find myself at odds with a word, I seek its most literal reference. So, to get to the root of it, I pulled up the definition. Firstly: “The action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered (such as a bribe).” Secondly: “The action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.” Both of these were extremely unnerving. These were at the top of the list! No mention of love, friendship or compassion. I must have missed the memo where acceptance does not include these vital principles and moreover appeared to be a term closer to a corrupt mafia transaction than a caring community. Further examination reveals that it matters more than safety, more than morality. Examples such as The Stanford Prison or Milgram experiments are two instances off the top of my head of how far people can wander off the path of moral conduct when they aren’t conscious of their individual ethics. There are some twisted and psychotic conditions that humans will enable, endure or even create when they concede to a hive minded mentality when famished for acceptance.
In my teens, the label “conformist” kept surfacing in my social circles as a buzzword to denounce the man or defend against any number of -isms imposed upon us personally for deviating from expectations of proper behavior. Some pretty heavy soapboxes were being stood upon at the time in alternative music that represent this undercurrent of defiance from thinking like obedient little adolescents. Songs like N.W.A. from Ministry mocked George Bush Senior’s agendas with an obscene dancing man in a suit helmeted by a triple sized head constructed of papier-maché looping direct quotes about the new world order. My friends were blasting Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” or “Know Your Enemy” through their car stereos laughably too fast down gravel roads of Amish countryside. I distinctly remember my sister and I infuriating my mother, who was nagging us about something, by shutting our bedroom door and blasting the repetitious lyrics: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” Mom rapped on the door shouting “Fuck you, you’ll do what I say!” We collapsed on the floor in a heap of laughter upon hearing that.
The volume on these principles was so turned up for us in those years. Long before we even grasped what we now know about the American government, war, profit and mass hysteria. That’s the thing about conformity, the most effective means of conditioning are administered in small, regular doses over the course of a lifetime. Building up an immunity through our community. An adaptogenic immunization administered through the administration. A fix to shoot through means of group initiatives, the most effective deterrent of conscious individual awareness. Add fear and it’s a sure-fire proposition. A vaccine against critical and revolutionary thought. Its potency is so subtle, reduced by means of a trickle-down effect and induced at the local level unremittingly, in trace amounts, to the community.
Ah, community. Another warm word meant to lull lost participants into its enveloping petals like a Venus flytrap, if they can’t think for themselves. The first memory I can recall about being part of specific community was when I was in third grade. My teachers suggested I take “PEP” classes. Kids that took these were considered “gifted”. I told my mother when she inquired about them that they were for the “preps” and that I didn’t want to be stuck in a room with affluent, conceited bullies as I was a definite target being from a lower income bracket. My intelligence meant nothing if I didn’t have the cool new book bag or pencil box. My wardrobe was far from chic and I frankly detested the thought of being locked in a room another two hours a day after the grueling eight hours that public school consumed. So, the idea was tanked. Then there was that hot minute where I cared immensely about being “cool” at twelve and my little sister and I were jr. high cheerleaders. That hellish season ended with negligent cheer mom’s nearly freezing my sister to death during a PA January. Nuts off to that!
I would proceed to worm my way out of academic and sports “involvement” until I was about fifteen. I was introduced to the possibility of being in theater. I was a high school freshman in the final weeks of the school year. Curriculum conditions were met, it was practically a study hall at that point. Remnant wafts of hair spray still clung to the desks from the lazy heads of redneck cheerleaders desperately still trying to transition into the ne’er do well style of the early nineties
A heavy door announced the dramatic entrance of the first self-proclaimed female bi-sexual student, in my experience anyway. She had a Lori Petty “tank-girl” strut setting aloft her grandiose ego yet sporting a pinch more lace than leather in her presence. Her bright white, long sleeved, men’s button-down shirt so oversized that it could have doubled as a dress was nearly completely saturated in blood. The production that warranted this was, of course, the apropos taboo curse word of all theatrical time: “Macbeth”.
Cool kids darted out of their chairs and rushed her. I scoffed continuing some redundant assignment I likely procrastinated in finishing. I was glad to be a humbug scrooging away at my desk. Pissed off at her being so gawdy when I had believed her so avant-garde, initially. But summoning preppies in my eyes was no admirable feat. Beneath my curmudgeon crust was a silken sad pie filling, envious that I was just a Johnny-come-lately to the world that was the stage. I sought no cliquey credibility from these imposters, anyway.
I managed to stay out of it all until I graduated. Implementing myself into athletics or clubs or extracurricular made me feel cheap, sorted, type casted. A bullseye for trigger happy, self-esteem hunters. I was just fine with being someone they couldn’t nail down or sum up. The hard part about this as a teen was the self-imposed alienation from any connection to scholarships. My undefined parameters, I would later discover, would disconnect me from funding or backing as I advocated for no cause which translated as no focus, goal or direction.
After high school, it was off to the city, then back to the sticks, then up to the Rockies only to return to the Appalachian foothills once more. It was at this semi-defeated point I found myself crushing on a guy that I would stalk into my community theater. After a short obsessive unrequited courtship in my mind, he would prove to be a dud as a potential mate. Despite the minimal discomfort of his presence, being in my late 20’s having no lucrative career and single with no familiar faces in range to hold my image under their thumb, I began to involve myself in those productions. A quaint little defunct church would host a hob nob meets hobo calliope collection of characters there. One night at the cast’s go-to lounge, I met the guy that would become my kid’s baby daddy and behold: a dysfunctional love story straight outta a Garth Brooks platinum hit.
After blinking in the summer of ’04 I found myself knocked up in the spring of ’05. Constantly nauseous and petrified for the first trimester, I implored nature that I not be responsible for influencing a young woman in the new millennium and of course, it was a girl. In my fifth month, the phone rang and I was summoned by a member of the theater to come to the rescue of a show. It was ten days till curtain and a wife role in one of the husband and wife teams was suddenly open. Apparently one of the girls was hospitalized. Something struck me uncanny about this as my mind rewound to a brief memory from the week prior. Driving down an alley that connected the theater to a convenience store where the players would go on food runs during break, I saw a gaggle of faux chiffon garbed women clucking toward the store. As I veered slightly to the left to give them clearance, there it was: the “tank girl” sashay. I’d recognize that shit eating walk anywhere.
It was a matter of seconds coming out of this flashback with a spark of realization. She had fucked up. Over the ten years that had passed my friend had dabbled heavily into painkillers. Oh, but that’s not all, friends. I forgot to mention that my mother had taken her in to my childhood home when I left for the city due to a bleeding scare early during a pregnancy of hers, and my mother’s nurturing intentions paid off. The baby survived and the girl found other accommodations afterward. She would go on to become a square hole scissored out of my yearbook by my asshat sister who I guess she was not fond of after she started dating tank girl’s baby daddy…and the thunder rolled.
The cerebral landslide I had just experienced led to a rapid and accurate attempt over the phone concerning this dropout actress’s identity. Which the theater member, albeit extremely reluctantly confirmed. I promised that I didn’t hear it from her and accepted the role. I would learn my lines in two days and at nearly six months pregnant would have to roll in a bed and be spat upon by my stage partner, go up and down stairs dropping banana peels in a nightgown, fake faint and fall on the stage and run back for a three-minute costume change into full domintarix gear: makeup, hair, corset and thigh high boots. Every night I welted my leg in the same place with the riding crop. I was thanked for saving the show. It was my moment to shine now. I was the hero. I belonged. Inside me, I could feel that scorned teenager smirking. Her peacock feathers had folded and this time it was my turn to boast and swagger.
Except then I felt something else. I felt sad. I realized all that acceptance from others didn’t give her any more self-confidence or ability than I had. Even with her advantage, she still came to rely on substances to endure the suffering of others and life. She still fell from grace. Gloating or undermining her in my thoughts truly brought me no real joy. It would just be the same mask I’d seen her wear a decade ago in those unforgiving halls full of cliques and would be derelicts – would be, if they could only see the truth. No matter how edgy anarchist tank girl tried to be. We both suffer the wrath of belonging, or not – to this society
This show I took her place in was the one where I would meet my future husband and the phone call was from my mother in law. The universe really weaves us through some strange reveal to reveal the entire pattern to us and we are always at its mercy. The chapter of my life spent in that theater would bring about both rapt joy and raw heartache. The comedies and tragedies of which I’ll save for another time.
But because it is so dire that we, as humans hold fast to our humankind-ness. I can’t stress enough that the pursuit of acceptance is as dangerous, if not more than any other drug and its needle is conformity. Be wary of those who would exploit you for their benefit and check yourself, most especially in the moments that you feel above others. For as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles.”