In high school, art class was my refuge. It felt as if everywhere else, I had to be a wunderkind, yet there I could be just a regular kid. At the end of every class, Mr. Foley would dismiss us with the admonition “If you can’t be good, be good at it!”
Of course, being in high school when hormones are raging, we all thought it had to do with sex. As I matured, I saw that it applies much more broadly.
The first place in my life, where I saw more to the adage, was in accepting myself as a gay man. Today the atmosphere around coming out as gay is more accepting. In the early 80s, it was still something largely unspoken of. That was the start of the AIDS epidemic, and being a gay man appeared to be an almost certain early death sentence. To many religious folks, being gay was an abomination.
Many friends and family members withdrew from having much to do with me. It hurt, deeply. But I knew I had to continue the path of being all of me anyway. Eventually, I found comfort in Mr. Foley’s words. To some people, I would never be good. But that didn’t mean I had to stop being me, gay and all. I found that freeing.
When I began exploring my spirituality in 2005, it was in a very welcoming place. The previous minister had been known to say “Your opinion of me is no business of mine.” As one who had felt defined by others’ opinion of me, the possibility that it was not how I had to live was liberating! I began an earnest exploration of “Who am I?”
A major struggle for me as I age is internalized stereotypes of aging. I remember expecting my body to feel different, “old” in some way, when I woke up on my 55th birthday. It was a revelation to me that I didn’t feel any different than I did the day before.
Ageism is alive and well today. American society has prejudices and stereotypes of what aging is supposed to look like. And I know that I have internalized many of these. I must make myself aware of these when I limit my possibilities as I age. Looking for a new job I must repeatedly tell myself not to limit my options because I’m afraid that I won’t be considered for a position because I am “too old.” I have to recall Mr. Foley’s wisdom, often.
“If you can’t be good, be good anyway!” Or perhaps “Party on, Garth!”