Cafeteria Catholic

Cure yourself of the affliction of caring how you appear to others. Concern yourself only with how you appear before God, concern yourself only with the idea that God may have of you.– Miguel De Unamuno (1864-1936)

Oh, Miguel. You make it sound so easy.

I confess: I am afflicted by vanity. I do not obsessively check my reflection in shop windows. Mine is not that kind of vanity. No, I am constantly on guard against the possibility that people think I’m stupid.

I simply don’t like the sensation of not knowing how to act. Some can bumble around until they figure things out. That’s not me. Every atom in my body balks at bumbling.

Let me paint you the picture. In elementary school, as everyone knows, there are two kinds of kids: those who bring lunch from home, and those who buy it in the cafeteria.

To the brown baggers, the lunch line can seem a tantalizing mystery. It is home to the oversize peanut butter cookie and the rectangular slice of pizza. Fried nuggets and chocolate milk are available there – but only if you know the rules.

Enter on the right, take only the top tray, gather your utensils, a spoon if you’re having the fruit cup, regular milk is five cents cheaper, everyone gets the same hot lunch, tater tots or fries? – keep moving! – cookies are not included in the cost of hot lunch, have your money ready, you’re a nickel short, no that’s a dime, the big one is the nickel, everyone needs a napkin, just one napkin little man, two hands on the tray, keep it moving, back to your table.

Bon appétit.

I was a lunch box and thermos kid, and so clueless about etiquette and protocol. The school lunch crowd seemed to know just what to do, but to me the whole business seemed complicated and dangerous. How did it all work? What if I did something I wasn’t supposed to? The grownups appeared to have very little patience for deviant behavior. My anxiety grew along with my curiosity.

As was bound to happen, my parents sent me in one day without lunch. No doubt they woke, as I do now with shameful regularity, to find an empty refrigerator. So, they packed me off with the price of a school lunch: 60 cents. Not that they could have known, but they were sending me to face my demons.

So what did I do? I did what I do best, I faked it. I mimicked the guy in front of me in the line. I did what he did, right down to the movement of his feet. If he stepped left, I stepped left. If he reached with his right hand for the tray, I reached with my right hand for the tray. When he took a spoon, I took a spoon.

We must have looked like an amateur mime team, but it worked. I made it through the line without drawing attention to myself.

It won’t surprise you, perhaps, that I spent the next 20 years pursuing a career as an actor. I had found the one thing I could be sure everyone would agree that I did well. In acting school, they gave it a fancy description – living truthfully under imaginary circumstances – but I prefered to think of it as faking. Turns out I am a top-notch faker.

At a certain point in life, I realized, I had to let the imaginary circumstances go and start living in reality. Allowing myself to look foolish on occasion is a big part of that deal. As Paul wrote in his famous letter to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

As I mature, I am learning to put away childish things. I am learning to let go of my vanity.

This will serve me, I hope, in the great lunch line in the sky.

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