In Defense of Naiveté.
There are few greater personal insults than being called naive, even when tossed in a light, rib-poking dressing.
I know, because I was often called this (or its cousins innocent and gullible) growing up. For some reason — maybe it was my introverted, book-wormish, outsider-ish personality — I was always the last one to learn about something that had gone on at school, whether a fight, a perfect couple’s breakup, or a student suspended for drugs.
I was always the one left out of the loop, and always the one nakedly widening my eyes at the wicked world around me.
Some people used my persuadable nature to entertain themselves. One time, a friend told me that her dad died, and after I’d expressed my shock and concern, she laughed and said, “April Fool!” Others saw an opportunity to break me out of my innocence.
Like once, after learning I was still a virgin at age 16, a male co-worker brought me a Dixie cup of whipped cream mixed with I-don’t-know-what so he could show me what it looked like. He laughed when my mouth dropped open in disgust.
In my 20s, still wearing my skin of naiveté, I thought that when my boss called me into his office and kindly asked me what I thought of a new database design, he was genuinely interested in my thoughts and opinions, those both supportive and critical. I imagined him later promoting me for my objective and thorough analysis. How very naive I was!
And I was certainly naive, and way out of my league, when I entered a business partnership with two other women, guided by very little in the way of legalese. I believed that maintaining a respectful partnership, one where everyone’s needs were listened to and met, would naturally take priority over the mere practical needs of the business. After all, we’d shared personal intimacies. Secrets, even.
After more than a year and a fortune in legal bills to get myself untangled, followed by a kind-but-stern lecture from my accountant to not be so trusting next time (or even better, stay away from business partnerships altogether), I spent some time hitting myself over the head. How could I have been so gullible?
How could I have been so naive about the true, and often deceiving and self-serving, nature of human beings?
Yes, it was true, I’d taken people’s words at face value too readily. And I’d always been too soft, too vulnerable, too silly… too exposed.
With a little dose of my Midwestern pride, I decided that naive was no longer going to be a label affixed to me. I was in my late 30s, and it was past time to get a grip and grow up. People are not always good, I drilled into my brain, so stop trusting them.
I carved an outer armor for myself, like a turtle’s shell, into which I could withdraw and protect myself from being hurt, used or mocked. I stopped looking people in the eyes, the conduit to their soul, after which I’d always ended up a sucker. I still traded personal intimacies, but only with those within my safe, tight, inner circle. I studied every new potential relationship, and the world itself, through narrowed eyes.
My words became lined with cynicism and sarcasm, words like “Color me surprised,” and “Well, what would you expect?” and “Shoulda seen that coming.” I began to shake my head at other people for being too blind, naive and trusting. Thank goodness time and experience had hardened me and opened my eyes to the real world.
Looking back, I see how, in making the decision to peel away my naiveté and grow up, I was actually making a decision to grow older. Not older in terms of numbers, but older in terms of my soul. My newfound wisdom about the world and its people began to separate me from it. Loneliness and depression soon traded places with my more natural hopefulness and enthusiasm.
However, the loneliness turned out to be a gift. In its silence, I was forced to see what I’d refused to look at: my own capacity to frustrate and disappoint others, as well as my complicity in the hurting, misleading, and the letting down of other human beings. This, I suppose, was the final layer of naiveté I had to shed. I saw how all of us are a blend of opposites: shadow and light, good and bad, victims and instigators.
I saw how our opinions depend on which angle we look at a story from. Human nature is complex. It should be complex, given we are part ego and part soul. Rather than this insight further isolating me, it gave me the courage I needed to get back out in the world, absent my bitter, suspicious shell.
Besides, I missed meeting new people and making true, heartfelt connections. I missed seeing and being seen. I missed putting on nice clothes and a little make-up once in a while. I missed the aroma and bustle of coffee shops.
I set my heart free to feel the light of day upon it again. I began looking up, directly into other people’s eyes, straight to their soul, again. I was ready to indulge my deepest human desire to share my truest self, and reclaim my core values of empathy, compassion and honesty.
Now, having just turned 45, I know I have no choice about growing older in age. But I can choose to stay youthful in my soul. I can choose to stay hopeful and open. I can choose to still be surprised by both the benevolence and the cruelty of human beings. I might not invest in any more business partnerships (it would be a shame if I hadn’t learned anything), but I can choose to trust others with my heart again.
And so I do choose these things, even if they might come wrapped in the label naive.
Keri Mangis, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, E-RYT200, is a writer, activist, and teacher living in Minneapolis. She likes to dig deep and write about how politics, parenting and current events are as much ‘spiritual centers’ that can cultivate greater mindfulness and consciousness as anywhere that goes by this name. In a world divided, she seeks unity, compassion, and connection. She is currently pitching her memoir, entitled Skin by Skin: A Soulful Affair, in which she has blended her personal story of transformation with elements of magical realism to make a story that is lighthearted at first touch, but penetrates deep down to the soul. She loves to connect on Facebook or Twitter, and you can find more of her writings on her personal website.