I hate trying on clothes. Security cameras across the country have undoubtedly recorded me wandering in circle after circle around department stores in a state of nervous indecision. I think I have pretty good taste, an eye for what works and what doesn’t, what I like and what I don’t. What I lack is courage. What I fear is commitment.
A clothing purchase is, I realize, a pretty minimal kind of commitment but as a Jesuit trying to honor a vow of poverty I like the clothes that I buy to do a fair amount of work. More often than not I’m trading in a gift item that was too big or too redundant for something that suits me and my wardrobe needs. It’s a moment of opportunity and cost, of risk and reward. A pocket full of gift card and a stomach full of doubt – this is what it feels like for me to go shopping.
This is not just a wardrobe problem. It never is. It involves my body, my identity, and my projection of self. It’s about my relationships with others, strangers and friends alike. I’m certainly not alone in worrying about things like this. How many Facebook profiles include a nervous confession about a ‘complicated’ relationship status? I have news for you: it’s complicated because it’s a relationship; that’s the way it works. Whether trying on clothes or trying some other commitment, our lives are lived in public and that make things complicated.
When I moved into the Jesuit novitiate my Novice Director encouraged us all to be gentle and patient with each other during our transition into religious life. He told us that a new vocation is like a new suit: you try it on and it flatters you in some places even as it rubs you wrong in others. To commit to anything (or anyone) requires this kind of patience. It takes time for the fabric to stretch, the seams to loosen, but perhaps most of all, for you to get used to how others will see you now that you’ve adopted a new look, a new identity. To be honest, sometimes I’m not sure which causes the greater pinch – the new pair of pants or the unforgiving mirror.
This continues to be true. Sometimes you get to a point in your life and realize that it no longer suits you. Maybe your life seems too small and you feel cramped. Or perhaps it’s too spacious and you feel lost in it. I found that this has been true in some of my relationships as well as my wardrobe. There have been people who loved me generously and our relationships were strong but somehow, over time, I wasn’t able to wear them well. The relationship began to pinch or to sag. I couldn’t see myself in it any longer. Some of them, I must admit, I never really gave a chance; but often enough I did the best I could to make it work and I failed. For one reason or another it didn’t suit me. It didn’t fit. I needed to change.
My students and I recently finished reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There’s a character in that story who calls himself The Misfit. When asked about the title he explains that he adopted it because his punishment never seemed to fit his crime. He could never reconcile what he felt in suffering with what he had done to deserve it. I know this feeling too – carrying guilt and shame for a lot longer than necessary, suffering an unwillingness to let go of pain, an inability to forgive. The weight becomes too much, the reality grows strangely off balance, but still we limp onward in shoes that hurt our feet.
In the climactic moment of the story, after doing his ‘dirty-deed,’ The Misfit removes his glasses to clean them. Moments before he had put on a shirt taken off of one of his victims and, after doing this, he was recognized by another character not as a misfit but as a child, as “one of [her] babies.” He violently refuses this recognition and, well, he gets blood on his glasses. It is in some sense a story about how it can be hard to see ourselves, sometimes impossibly so. But in this recognition is the story’s sole moment of grace-filled redemption – a moment where one person’s humanity is revealed to and recognized by another.
When trying something new we need courage, we need patience, and we need support. The gift of self is one that requires reciprocity, it requires relationship. I put the suit on; I break it in; I let other people help reflect back to me (generally more forgiving input than the cold hard mirror) about how it seems to fit. How does this look? Does it bring out my eyes? Does it support my frame? Does it work? Does it fit? Should I buy it? Do you recognize me?
There’s vulnerability in the changing room. There’s risk in relationship. There’s courage in commitment. There are also the graced moments of recognition when you find the one worth having, the one you’re willing to take home with you. There are moments when you’re ready, or ready enough, to make it work, to remove the tags and to make it yours. I may hate trying on clothes but I certainly do like wearing them. And sometimes, at least in my daily life if not in the dressing room, I’m even able to look in the mirror and say, “Damn, this looks pretty good on me!”
The cover image, from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, can be found here.